She was just an American girl. I knew her when we were at school. I used to hang around at the end of classes, try to leave at the same time as her in the hope of us meeting. In my head maybe we’d arrive at the door together and I’d make an exaggerated show of letting her through first. I’d practised a gesture in case the right circumstances arose that I thought conveyed the right mix of casual nonchalance and chivalry. A half shrug, left palm raised, head inclined, sardonic smile. After you. I had spent a long time on getting the eyebrow raise right. A couple of millimetres out and it just looked a bit leery. Maybe I’d over thought it but I wanted her first impression to be a dizzying sense of sensitivity and strength and, yeah, who am I kidding, sexiness. Later she told me that she mostly had just taken in an overgrown fringe, a brief waft of sandalwood (I was burning a lot of joss sticks at the time), and had assumed that I was having dental work; it was her only way to account for the strange rictus grin I’d managed.
She covered her books in band logos – Hole, Babes In Toyland, Sleater Kinney, a possibly ironic Motley Crue – and I didn’t really think she cared about who held doors for who. She gave the impression that she was used to getting where she wanted to go and so maybe she just figured that doors opened for her anyway. She’d usually be last to leave the class, arguing with the teacher about next term’s reading list (too European, too white, too male) whilst packing away her books in a black, canvas shoulder bag dotted with button badges. The Clash. Janis Joplin. Nina Simone. Angela Davis. I didn’t know it was Angela Davis until she told me about her, at some length, later. Stevie Nicks. There were a lot of Stevie Nicks badges. I knew who she was. My dad was always a bit of a Fleetwood Mac fan so I’d always figured they weren’t that cool. I wasn’t that smart back then but I was smart enough to realise that I should never bring this up with her. By the end she’d taught me a lot of things but chief amongst them was this: there is nobody cooler than Stevie Nicks.
We used to skip RE and sit up on the balcony at the back of the school, up where no-one was supposed to go. Cutting. That’s what she called it. We’re cutting class. Religious Education. Who needs that? It’s not like deification of satin scarfed songstresses was on the syllabus. She could have taught that class. Delivered it as her doctoral thesis. There was more than one time where we’d sit sharing a pair of ear phones listening to Gold Dust Woman in our version of fervent prayer; she always had the right earphone and I took what was left which was, well, left… I could never get her to say ‘bunking off’ or ‘skipping’ without it sounding like she was poking fun at me. Come to think of it I couldn’t get her to say much without it sounding like that but looking back I don’t think there was any malice in it. She didn’t have many friends. I think it must have been hard relocating like that, upheaving geography and culture and adolescence. People found her standoffish I guess, where I saw mystery and romance and the brightest, saddest hazel eyes I’ve ever seen, they saw brashness and heard that direct twang that seemed ever in search of an argument. To me she was always just sure, you know? I thought she knew who she was at a time when I had no idea. Maybe the reality was that she was a bit lonely. I know I was.
She used to like the sound of the traffic. You could hear it from the school, up on the balcony, because we weren’t that far from a couple of main roads. That what you call a Freeway? She was teasing when she said stuff like that but perhaps we did all seem a little small to her. She liked the traffic. Said it reminded her of the sound of the sea, reminded her of home. She probably said ‘the ocean’ rather than ‘the sea’ but I don’t properly remember. It’s funny how the little details separate us but the sense of it was the same: she missed the great, rolling expanse of water that swelled and sang at the shore she used to live by. We couldn’t really compete with that. Landlocked and little. We had a couple of good pubs but I was never convinced I’d get served so I never took her.
Was I in love with her? That’s a hard one. At the time I was kind of obsessed with her and I suppose that’s one definition. It was pure and hard and right and I guess that’s another definition. But love? There was never anything that happened. Well, nothing except one of those intense, deep connections you only really get when you’re seventeen years old and you’re so lost in yourself that when someone else finds you it’s like two dust motes dancing in space that fall into the same orbit. Two atoms colliding. The chances are so infinitesimally tiny that you look on it as some kind of miracle. We were cutting RE so I guess neither of us believed in a higher power but if you’d asked me at the time then I’d have said that it felt like fate. I say we never believed in a higher power: I mean other than Stevie, of course. I guess I was never her Lindsey Buckingham but she was always my Stevie Nicks.
She was just an American girl. Wonder what she’s doing now? I miss her.
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
It was the month I spent learning ‘After The Goldrush’. Holed up in a house in Harrow, curtains tight all day until I’d open them up late to glimpse the dusk. I used to watch the street lights come on before slipping out to the corner shop to pick up enough to barricade myself back in for the following day. I think I was getting by on cheap Shiraz, a pack of Marlborough Lights, and tinned sardines on toast. Sometimes I’d upgrade to a better bottle of wine and skip the sardines. There was a guy that hung out near the shop who kept trying to sell me weed, or something to ‘turbo charge your cigarettes, mate’ as he put it. After about a week he budged on his opening price and so, occasionally, I swapped out the sardines for his low grade skunk. That was pretty much my life that Autumn, sleeping through the day and numbing my way through the nights with booze and pot and Neil Young.
‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ was the one I kept coming back to. It was invariably the song that was still on when I’d drift off to sleep in the early hours, sometimes still oscillating away on repeat when I woke the next day. I’d reach across from my bed, pull my acoustic off the floor and cautiously sound out the progressions, right hand barely scratching the strings, just a faint echo of the original song coming out of the speaker. If there was anything left from last night’s joint I’d spark that up and ease into the evening semi-conscious. That whole time is lost in a haze of smoke and heartbreak. Only love can break your heart? Damn straight, Neil. Damn straight.
Early in the month the phone used to ring late at night. I was pretty sure it was you but I never picked up. I know you thought we could be something else, all that ‘I still want us to be friends’ stuff that you’d said steadily over and over again the night you told me. But who wants to snatch glimpses of a set of polaroids when you used to be in the film? We were widescreen and surround sound. We were the stars. I won’t watch someone else take my leading role while I skulk on the sidelines. We started as friends. That was your other line. We started as friends, so we can go back to being friends, as if I could go back to being the person I was when we started. You changed that person. Wrapped yourself up in him, around him, like you were ivy working your way into brick and wood, finding the spaces to catch and latch on. I guess that’s not fair. It’s not like I was unwilling; you were an invited invader. I just didn’t realise how much of me was so bound up in you, how much would crumble and pull apart when you retreated.
Lately the phone’s not been ringing and I’ve swapped crumbling and pulling apart for crumbling and burning. A succession of nights numbed and lost in sweet, sticky smoke. It makes the music sound better even if it doesn’t really change anything. Sometimes I’ll put on Tom Petty or, if I really want to drown in nostalgia, Stevie Nicks, and try to put you in your place: you don’t have the exclusive rights on breaking my heart or the soundtrack to it. But the American Girl feels like a lifetime ago and we were just kids then. Edge of seventeen? I hear you, Stevie, I hear you. That was all too long ago. Not like you. Right up close. You were present enough that I didn’t wash my sheets for weeks because I was convinced they still held your scent. One of those androgynous perfumes, I used to spritz some on my wrist on the mornings you’d stayed over so I could keep you with me for the rest of the day. But you’re past enough that now there was mainly just an oppressive and pungent cloud of weed hanging perpetually in my room. Even through that I thought I still caught the traces of you but I was pretty stoned when I was awake so my senses were not reliable. Not to be trusted.
You will come around. That’s the very last thing I let you say to me. I didn’t believe you then and every time Neil sings it now, every time I pick restlessly at my guitar strings and murmur the chorus, I still don’t believe it.
Tangled Up In Blue
I didn’t get Dylan until I was 33. I don’t know why it didn’t happen earlier. There was a time in my mid 20s, a time half lost in a fug of smoke, incensed and insensible, when I remember really trying to get him. I was listening to a lot of Neil Young and it seemed like a logical progression. Maybe I had it back to front. Everything was a little back to front then, dealing with the fall out from the end of love number four. It even sounded a bit like a Dylan song. Talkin’ love number four blues. Ballad in desponden-cee minor. Maybe not. Look, he’s a genius that shaped the entire cultural landscape of the twentieth century. I’m not. I’m just someone chalking up too many failed love affairs, measuring them all against a teenage friendship with a girl from America who disappeared, and finding them all wanting.
I think an appreciation for Bob is hard won. I don’t think it’s something that just slots into place instantly. There’s that snare shot at the start of Like A Rolling Stone, like a starting gun for a century, but otherwise it doesn’t offer itself up easily. You have to work at it. Stick with it, live with it for a while, let it percolate into your soul. Perhaps that’s the great lesson here: that anything worthwhile is going to take a little work. Anything including you but I guess it’s a bit late for that.
You choose your poison. I got tired of feeling blunt so I knocked the smoke on the head sometime in 2012. My standard joke is that I quit after discovering it wasn’t going to be part of the Olympics in London: that I’d trained all those years for nothing. I think I had a line about being disqualified for taking performance enhancing drugs as well. One of those standard, semi rehearsed bits of conversation you carry round with you. Scarily enough, if by some oversight on the part of the IOC, pot smoking had been approved as a discipline (or an indiscipline I guess) than I’d have backed myself for a medal. Probably not gold. It’s the sort of event where you could imagine none of the participants quite rousing themselves to strive for the gold but I reckon I’d have split the bronze with some other lost stoner. Maybe from Estonia. There you go, another Dylan-esque turn of phrase for you.
It was easier after I left the flat in Harrow, escaped further up the Met Line into Metroland. Out here it’s all Majestic Wine and micro brew shops. A much more respectable narcotic selection to desensitise yourself and get lost in. I buried the memory of you, phosphorescent number four, in expensive reds and dry whites. It was cheaper to buy more than six bottles so there was better value in oblivion. There were occasional moments of reflection as I was stewed in the booze: why didn’t it work, was it you, was it me, wasn’t life simpler sitting up on a balcony kicking round stories about Stevie Nicks with the smartest, sassiest girl you ever met? I keep coming back to that last one. I see friends now pair off and proclaim that they’ve found their soul mate. I always shied away from the phrase. It seemed a bit, well, shit. Maybe I’ve softened lately. Maybe I think I let mine slide away. Not just my soul mate. My accomplice in chief, my co-conspirator, my confidant, my touchstone. Time distorts memory and perhaps I just see the past as a rose tinted hue, all Stevie Nicks silk scarves and bare feet and incense burners, and perhaps it wouldn’t have been that simple.
That’s why I didn’t get Dylan until I was older. He’s complex. Life looks pretty simple when you’re young and you figure getting knocked down isn’t such a big deal: you’re spry enough to pick yourself up and go again. It hurts a bit more these days. Takes a little longer to find my feet each time I lose them. There’s more dust to dust down. It’s all a bit more complicated and that’s the thing that Bob speaks to. After we finished I sank into ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and didn’t surface for weeks. Just absorbed it until it was part of me. Didn’t try to learn it (I could never get Dylan’s picking down). Just drowned in it.
Got tangled up in it as I untangled myself from you.
Go Your Own Way
The invite had sat on my kitchen table for a couple of weeks before I really looked at it. I’d assumed it was some sort of alumni fundraising circular; the usual plea for funds to refurbish the science labs or name a building after some long dead headmaster. I hadn’t dismissed it, it wasn’t mentally earmarked for the shredder, but it was a long time since I’d really thought about school. Seeing that name again, the old latin motto, brought back memories I’d long since let settle. They’d taken a long time to sink and silt over and the envelope shone out at me like the search lamp on some sort of submersible come to dredge my past. I’d had to google the motto. Ironically it was ‘ad perpetuam memoriam’.
The fact that there was a reunion wasn’t the thing, at first, that I noticed. I was fixated on the opening paragraph of the letter and three words in particular. Twenty five years. There was something about seeing it in black and white that shook me out of myself, took me out of my comfortable, self imposed solitude. Not a content comfortable. More a best-we-can-do-is-make-him-comfortable comfortable. I was sober after smoking too much in my 20s and drinking too much in my 30s but I was still rounding off the sharp edges of living, now through routine and work and exercise. I didn’t feel much anymore – my heart rate only spikes now in spin classes – but that seemed better than the relentless sense of disappointment and dislocation of the past couple of decades.
Twenty five years. The words seemed to press play on a montage of memories I didn’t know my brain had edited together. It had done a pretty professional job. There was a soundtrack. Soft filters. I’m sure we didn’t all look that good. I know we were all younger but the photographic evidence would suggest a greater number of dodgy haircuts and bad fashion choices. I knew because I’d pulled all the old ones out to look through. Me and K seven or eight years ago at someone’s 35th birthday, the whole night spent fielding questions about when we were going to get a place, when I was going to pop the question. It was round about the time the penny dropped for me with Bob Dylan. Maybe just after it fell apart, I don’t properly recall. She should have been everything I wanted: smart and funny and confident. Like all the bits of myself that I liked reflected straight back at me. I can’t tell you why it didn’t really work out.
There were earlier pictures when me and S were together, mostly late night, early morning pictures. We were always laughing. Half the time we were high as kites which explains some of it but there’s a kind of youthful mania in those shots that I barely recognise now. Back when we thought we were indestructible and the world was laid out solely for us to experience and enjoy. There’s a couple of pictures of my flat in Harrow, presumably taken sometime in the aftermath of great love number 2 imploding. The flat’s littered with pizza boxes, my old acoustic guitar propped up in the background, a copy of ‘After The Goldrush’ on vinyl set in front of it. Looks suspiciously like I staged that shot. This was all pre-instagram and social media though so I’m not sure who I was trying to impress. Possibly myself. I don’t really listen to Neil Young anymore. Better to close that whole period off.
There’s only one picture of Anna. The American Girl. Someone at school must have had a polaroid – first time round before they came back as some kind of ironic, kitsch reminder of more innocent, less digital times. She’s gazing off into the middle distance, knees tucked up under her chin, hand resting on top of one of them with her obligatory silk scarf tied around her wrist. I’m not in it but I remember it. I was sat a couple of feet away, eyes fixed on her as she looked out towards some imagined future. I was always sat a few feet away staring at her in those days.
I wasn’t in touch with anyone from that far back. I’d often wondered why you’d never written but as the years had passed I’d accepted that I must have simply misjudged the connection. Mistaken your amusement for affection. It had taken me a long time. I think it’d have been easier if there hadn’t been that one moment, the day you left, when we held each other. I felt awkward at first but you wrapped your arms around my back and buried your face in my neck. You said something but I didn’t quite catch it, your voice muffled by my body. It sounded like ‘I’d give you my world’ but I don’t know now. Memories play tricks. I must have listened to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ a hundred times after you left, anything that Stevie sang on, anything that spoke to heartbreak in a language that we shared, and maybe I just came to believe that in your moment of leaving that you were quoting lyrics back to me. You were packing up. Years later I assumed you’d long since been shacking up too.
I put the invite back onto the kitchen table. I knew without checking my calendar that I was free the night it was on. I was always free. That night I put ‘Go Your Own Way’ on for the first time in too many years and all I could hear was Lindsey Buckingham singing ‘everything’s waiting for you’ over and over again.
I didn’t know that you called me American Girl until much later. It was a surprise that you called me anything at all; those first few weeks after I crash landed in England you seemed unable to speak to me. You were always there. Hanging around like a lost satellite that had lodged itself in my orbit. A lost satellite that had stopped sending signals home. Or was that me? I guess if I’d realised you were nervous then we could have started talking earlier. I could have put you at ease but that wasn’t really my thing back then. I felt constantly on edge so didn’t see why anyone else should feel comfortable. Young, dumb, and missing my mom.
I was the worst kind of know-it-all smart, my cast iron belief in my own rightness matched only by a massive, gnawing insecurity that was at the root of everything I did. I used to argue the hardest with the people I respected the most. Endless, stupid debates with the English teacher over ‘the institutionally patriarchal book list at the heart of the syllabus’ or chewing out Dawson, the History dude (I think I may have been the only one to call him that) over his small minded obsession with some argument a bunch of cavalier guys had with another bunch of roundhead guys. I know that stuff was important in the mother country but really? Couldn’t we have talked about the A bomb or Kesey and the Pranksters or slavery or the MC5 or something? I’d have settled for Roosevelt and the New Deal or Lincoln. Your idea of history just seemed, well, too prehistoric to me. Like I say, I was a pain in the ass.
It was ’89 and I was doing what I always did every time dad dropped us down in a new town, unfamiliar setting and a new set of faces; I was playing offence before anyone (I hoped) had figured out that they were supposed to be playing defence. All predictable self protection. Or, I should say, predictable with the benefit of hindsight and a sharp dose of therapy: I didn’t like the taste of that medicine though and never lasted the course. I guess now, looking back, that I can see the funny side of people singing “she’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis” and that stuff about Jesus and horses to me. It was a big song that year and there was a cleverness in the cruelty: to them I was some small town American with a funny voice and a big mouth so why not bait me with a song about small town America sung by a guy with a kinda funny voice. Did Tom Petty have a big mouth? I don’t know. He always just seemed like one of the good guys to me. Even that stuff with the Wilbury’s. Supergroups were never my thing but he was pretty cool. Fleetwood Mac are the exception, of course. Not strictly a supergroup but they might as well be.
You were different. I mean, for a start, you had a nickname for me that was at the bad ass, cool end of the Tom Petty song book spectrum. I don’t think you even knew it was a song which was kinda cute in itself, it was just a name you gave me because you were too shy to use my real one. But you were different because you saw past the bluster and bullshit. Once we finally got talking I felt like you got why all my external expressions of myself – the badges, the bands, the scarfs, the clothes – were important and how they were simultaneously me but also deliberate barriers to stop people getting too close to me. Jesus, it was exhausting being a teenager. You were curious about all that, curious about me, in a way that wasn’t just about an adolescent boy trying to infiltrate his way into an adolescent girl’s panties. Or at least that’s what I tell myself now. I’m sure it’s true. You were purer than that. Never tried anything, never touched without asking, never even tried to kiss me. But I knew you wanted to. Did you love me? Did I love you?
I used to drag you up onto the school balcony to listen to the traffic. We had to cut class to do it. What did you call it? Skipping lessons? I know you guys invented the language but really? We were consciously making a decision to remove ourselves from the preordained path laid down for us. C’mon. It was an act of rebellion. An act of alleged self harm. It was a cut, not a fucking merry step between walking and running that signifies a certain jauntiness. We cut. We didn’t skip. You think Patti Smith did much skipping? Or Courtney? Or Stevie? Stevie Nicks never skipped a step in her life and neither did I. You just used to scrunch your face up, blush, and look away when I let loose with one of these rants back then. I think I did it to see whether I could push you away, some weird way to test your resolve or your faith in me. You never failed me.
I got dragged away again before anything could happen at its own pace. Another country, another continent, another move. If I’d have been more open or you’d have been less closed then maybe we’d have broken through those long, intense conversations into something more concrete. More, I dunno, more physical. Maybe I should have just turned around, one of those times I felt your eyes on me, always on me, and kissed you. Maybe I should have been a little softer. Maybe you should have been a little harder. Maybe we could have left this world for a while. Maybe we were falling. And maybe we should have let ourselves.
The Needle And The Damage Done
I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say.Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.
Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.
I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.
The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.
You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.
You’re A Big Girl Now
I had the ink done in my early 30s, just the inside of my arms across the elbow joint, to hide the scarring. It felt stranger than I’d expected sitting in the chair and feeling a needle again. In a way I kinda liked it, liked that the first sting wasn’t immediately deadened by that familiar, spreading honey, but was just followed by more sharp stabs. Repeated little reminders that this was the difference between being alive and being dead. It had taken me a long time to figure out that being alive cost a little pain that you were supposed to endure and not numb. I’m not trying to kid anyone that I had some sort of straight edge awakening as I got older – I still drank a little more than I should, still rolled the occasional joint – but on my own terms I’d been sober for four or five years.
On my left arm was this rose design I’d been kicking around on notebooks since as long as I could remember, probably all the way back to school. The centerpiece, which covered most of my old tracks, was the main flower, fully open as if you were looking down on it from above. Trailing off it and running up and down the sides of my arm was this interlinked chain of barbed wire and petals. After all those years in rehab and therapy you’d have thought I’d have shaken off something so clichéd but, like I say, it was a pattern I’d been sketching out for a long time. It felt like it was me: there was something beautiful there but you were going to get cut up pretty bad if you tried to touch it.
The right arm didn’t need quite so much attention; I’d never gotten the hang of shooting with my left hand and I never trusted anyone else to do it. There was just enough romance left in me to work up a design from the lyrics for “Rhiannon”. Something that’d remind me of the kid I was that first saw footage of Stevie Nicks twisting and spinning on stage, gossamer sleeves seeming to suspend her above the stage. She was the fiercest, prettiest thing I’d ever seen. But even then I could see the sadness and I think that was what stuck, that idea of facing it all down like the coolest fucking lady to walk the earth even though your heart’s broken up. “She rules her life like a bird in flight and who will be her lover?” There was enough romance for me to pencil it out but not enough for me to bear it permanently on my skin. I settled on “Never ever been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm”. Tusk wasn’t my favorite album but I always liked that song and it said what I wanted to say I guess. It felt good to reconnect with the things I’d claimed as my own when I was younger, those early markers of identity that I’d near obliterated in a blizzard of powder through my 20s. Felt good to find common cause with Stevie again that wasn’t cocaine.
The guy that did my tattoos loved Dylan. I sat in that studio for hours listening to Bob wheeze his way through his abstract riddles whilst my mistakes were blotted out in reds and blacks. I didn’t get it. On some level I guess I admired the poetry but it didn’t speak to me, didn’t move me. I found him bloodless. Almost like if we’d swapped places and he’d been sitting in the chair the needle would jab him in the arm and there’d be nothing. Perhaps he’d drawl something sly and sardonic, rational and detached, launch into thirty verses of metaphor when all I really wanted him to do was tell me how he felt. Does it hurt, Bob? You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, he says back. Come on, let me in a little: does it hurt?
Me and Zac, the guy that did my arms, didn’t really talk much but towards the end I asked him why he only listened to Dylan. Called him on the whole emotional absence thing. He raised an eyebrow at ‘emotional absence’ and asked me just how much therapy I’d had. Those phrases stay with you, I said, and besides don’t change the subject. His response was to play me ‘Blood On The Tracks’. Said he barely listened to it these days, that it was too raw for him, and, besides, customers generally didn’t like mention of blood in the studio. I think that last part was his idea of a joke but neither of us laughed. We listened to it in silence, he even stopped using his gun, and just let the songs puncture my skin instead. So it does hurt, Bob. It’s ripping you apart, just like the rest of us.
When it was done I asked him to put “You’re a big girl now” on again and I let my thoughts wander back to a time when I knew someone. Really knew someone. Sure, we were just kids but you were the only one I ever let through my barbed wire, the only one brave enough or stupid enough to ride out my storm. That’s the trouble with storms though, isn’t it? They blow in and, just as quickly, they blow out again, leaving all that wreckage behind them. I hope you forgave me.
Bob was singing “with a pain that stops and starts … like a corkscrew to my heart… ever since we been apart” and I found that I was crying, tears falling over my outstretched arm, a blur of ink and blood smudging Stevie’s words. I have always been a storm.
It was my third year in Mammoth and I still didn’t know why I came. That first time he’d convinced me that I’d love it, that there was nothing like the sensation of ploughing through powder, cold Californian air in your lungs, the mountains cutting a jagged zig-zag across the horizon. I went with it then. I think I was caught up in his relentless enthusiasm, mistook it for something more joyous than all the deadbeats and down-and-outs that had polluted too many of my years. I guess it wasn’t a mistake. He was more joyous than what I’d become used to but the object of his joy seemed to largely be himself. I just got to bask in the reflected glow, catch a few rays. I never did tell him just how much powder I’d ploughed my way through when I was younger; coke was cheaper than skiing too and the risks seemed pretty similar. Maybe that just reflected my relative skills. I was lousy on the piste but a world champion ex junkie. One day at a time and all that jazz.
We met after I’d moved to San Francisco. It hadn’t really been my plan but it turned out that there weren’t too many ways to scratch out a living bumming it on Big Sur and I couldn’t face returning to Seattle. The very definition of a bad scene. Good coffee though so there’s that, I guess. I think I’d initially avoided defaulting to the Bay as it seemed too obvious. Stick a pin in the big map of Bohemia and chances are you’re going to find yourself idly imagining hanging out on Haight and losing long nights in late night bars with artists and artisans. The stubborn part of me – and it’s not like it’s a small part – resisted that for a while. Did I think I was going to go all Mary Ann Singleton, rock up to Barbary Lane and live out my own tales of the city? Swap smokes with my landlady and share my dreams with poets and painters? I was forty-one and past dreaming.
I don’t know if I was some sort of novelty for him, with my tattoos and scarves, my opinions. He was doing something in Silicon Valley that he’d told me about several times but which I never really cared enough about to grasp. A social media start-up I think. He’d been pretty bemused by my analogue habits and had insisted on setting me up on Facebook, connected me back up to a whole sequence of people I thought I’d long left behind me. Trawling through my life had taken a while, if only because I’d moved around so much. All those schools – a bunch of people I didn’t remember – as well as my various addresses on the West Coast. A lot of friend requests in Seattle went unanswered. I assumed they were either dead or they still owed me money. Like I said, it was the very definition of a bad scene.
I knew we were an odd fit. I was the exact opposite of his ex-wife and maybe that was all I was ever supposed to be. The anti-her. I don’t know what he was supposed to be for me. He was attractive in a Gap advert kinda way but I hadn’t ever thought I’d be bothered about how someone looked in tailored chinos. And he was enthusiastic. It was like he was powered on his own internal dynamo, each day permanently set to ‘awesome’. I think maybe I thought that some of that relentless energy would be infectious, that it’d be something I could catch, like a more pleasant form of crabs, you know? But it never seemed to infect me. We had a lot of sex. Enthusiastic sex, on his part at least. But it was always sort of empty for me, like he was bench pressing at the gym or silently counting off the number of seconds he could hold himself in a plank position. Not silently actually, there was always a loud and upbeat commentary. Come on. Two. Three. Four. Five. Come on. You’re nearly there. Six. Seven. Eight. Hold on. Nine. Ah yeah. Ten. It was rare for the count to get past ten.
The atmosphere between us had been different on the drive up to the resort. Maybe he’d grown tired of my sarcasm and sniping, maybe he was weary of his little collapsing star, a black hole sucking at his ever radiating light. I joked that we should head north straight past Mammoth and right on through to Mono. They would probably welcome me like the home coming queen. He didn’t get it and muttered something about there being no snow in Mono and how he’d booked just-the-best-lodge again this year and that if I didn’t like it then I didn’t have to come. I clammed up and didn’t say much else for the rest of the journey, even left his ‘Hootie And The Blowfish’ running on the car stereo. Apparently it was what he listened to in college. On its own that should have been enough for me to flip open the car door, roll into a ball, and launch myself out to bounce down the freeway. Lie there for a while on the asphalt, let it fill my nostrils. I must have listened to him hit rewind on ‘Only Wannabe With You’ five, six times, each repeat just reinforcing the irony.
The day he left me half way up a mountain was when I knew we were done. Or more like it was the day I resolved to make us done, I think I’d known we were done for a long time but just got stuck in my own inertia. I don’t even remember the details of the row. Just me being me, wise cracking, whip snappin’, smart ass me. And him being him, lame ass him. We were off piste – literally off piste, that’s not a metaphor – and I’d only gone to keep the peace, to appease his incessant need to do something: it’ll be gnarly, come on. So really I knew the problem wasn’t him but was me: when did I start keeping the peace and appeasing people? When did I nod along dumbly to something being gnarly that wasn’t a fucking tree? When did I ski? When did I go off piste? Again, literally. Metaphorically half my life had been somewhere way off piste. I watched him disappear down the slope in a spray of snow, sun radiating off a million unique frozen flakes thrown into the air by his departure. It was a good exit, I had to give him that, and it spared me the indignity of anyone witnessing my own descent. Most of it was on my ass.
I thawed out in McCoy Station with the other mountain refugees. Pitch black coffee and wi-fi: everything I needed to plot my trajectory back home. I figured I’d hire a car and hit the road. If the pass through Yosemite was shut then I could always head south and find a motel in Fresno or some other collection of malls masquerading as a town. I pulled out my phone to call down to the lodge’s concierge service, might as well get them to book the rental and with any luck my soon to be ex would end up picking up the tab. I had a notification in Facebook. Usually I ignored them, someone I’d long forgotten wanting to ‘connect’. There wasn’t much in my past, save a few precious months of genuine connection across the Atlantic, that I cared to revisit. I opened the app resolving to erase myself, to disappear from the digital realm, but the message stopped me. It was my old school in England extending an invite across twenty five years to a reunion.
I was sat inside and if I pressed my face up close to the glass screen separating me from the cold then I could make out my reflection, the translucent outline of my features superimposed on the white capped peaks in the distance. I looked old. So did the hills but they carried it with a certain rugged charm. Through the glass, way out in the distance on the mountain opposite, a shelf of snow dislodged and discharged itself down the slope, obliterating my reflection in a sudden and shocking blizzard of the brightest white.
I didn’t know why I’d come. I mean, of course, I did but my reasons were too ridiculous to acknowledge honestly to myself. Had I seriously expected to pull open the door to the old school hall, stand silhouetted in the frame, and watch as you turned, met my eyes, and ran across to embrace me? A woman I didn’t know that used to be a girl that I did. We knew each other for such a short time, and it was so long ago, but I’ve never known anyone so completely before or since. So why come? The girl I knew wouldn’t be seen dead back here.
This was the hall where we’d sit for assembly and you’d roll your eyes to the ceiling, exhale just loudly enough to be heard, shuffle deliberately in your chair every time the Head started another of his speeches about values or the ethos of the school or anything you saw as pompous English bullshit. That was almost everything as I remember it. We used to do that experiment in Physics where we observed a magnetic field by scattering iron filings onto paper and then putting a long, rectangular magnet down amongst them. Most of the filings would disperse, be pushed away. A few would cling to its sides. You were like some sort of super magnet dropped onto the school, poles misaligned, repulsing everyone with waves of force. Everyone except me. I was the iron filing that attracted and stuck. Like the patterns on the paper in the experiment I saw the strange beauty in the disruption you caused, too.
I don’t really recognise anyone. There may have been a circuit where people had stayed in touch but I wasn’t part of it. I imagine people had found each other again on social media but I’d never kept any kind of online profile, hadn’t even done that lurker thing of checking people out anonymously. Okay, that’s not entirely true. A couple of times, maybe five years ago, I’d looked for you. I didn’t have much to go on. It seemed fair assumption that you’d still be called Anna – although you had always joked about changing your name to Stevie – but would you still be a Meredith? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. It was impossible to know. I couldn’t find anyone that I believed was you on Facebook and I could hardly search google for “Anna, the American Girl”. I did, anyway, and it just turned up a line of dolls. Dead eyed, plastic, and passive. Pretty much the least appropriate search result for you imaginable.
I have brief, polite conversations with a couple of people that pretend to recognise me, swear they remember me like it was yesterday. I don’t recognise the person they’re remembering anymore. A little part of him never properly left this place, a little part stayed bound up in the memories of someone he collided with nearly thirty years ago. I wonder what he’d have done if he knew then what I know now. The conversations dry up. My evident distraction is maybe taken for rudeness and I excuse myself claiming that it’s all just a little overwhelming. And it is. Just not in the way that they imagine. I scan the room again and mark your absence in it. Like I say, it was always ridiculous. For old time’s sake – all of it was for old time’s sake I guess – I leave the hall and find my way back to the balcony above the back of the school. The one we used to sit up on and listen to the drone of cars along the main road into town. Out of town. You always insisted it was the road out of town but then you were always on the move, always ready to leave.
There’s a stillness up on the balcony, cold air pinching my skin after the stuffy heat of the hall. I’m aware of my heart beat. What was that Stevie Nick’s lyric? Something about your heartbeat being the sound of your loneliness? You would have known and would have been outraged that I didn’t remember. All I remember is what I had, and what I lost.
It starts to rain. Just one of those dreary light drizzles but enough to shake me from my thoughts. I turn to head home and you’re standing there at the door out to the balcony, arms crossed, satin scarf hanging from a wrist, thirty years older wearing a lifetime’s story that I don’t know in the lines on your face. “Do you wanna cut RE?” you say.
“Always,” I reply. “I was saving your spot. Where have you been?”
“Well, that’s complicated,” you say. “You know us women. We will come and we will go.”
“Always,” you reply. “Now either you come here and hug me or you find me a drink or I’m on the next flight back to California.”
I tell you later that I knew you’d be there. Knew you’d be up on the balcony, looking kinda sad, getting wet, staring out at the passing cars and watching their headlights refract in the rain. The truth was a little different but it was still like me to double down on front and confidence when I was terrified. Even after all this time. Especially after all this time. The truth was that I’d travelled five thousand miles to see if I could find the only place I ever felt at home and I had no idea what I’d have done if you weren’t there. I have no idea what to do now that you are.
“Do you wanna cut RE?” I say.
“Always,” you reply. “I was saving your spot. Where have you been?”
“Well, that’s complicated,” I say. “You know us women. We will come and we will go.”
“Always,” I reply. “Now either you come here and hug me or you find me a drink or I’m on the next flight back to California.”
In the event you deliver on the hug and the drink. I think we both needed the drink after that embrace. Later we’d fill in the long blanks we had in each others stories but, in a way, we didn’t need to; there was something in that moment that unspooled the past twenty or so years and we were as we’d been, stood on the balcony, buried in each others arms. Only then we were saying goodbye and now I didn’t know what we were saying. When we parted I’d whispered ‘If I could I’d give you my world’, my parting gift from the Mac. I don’t know if you heard it. It wasn’t really like me, a rare moment of honesty and vulnerability making itself heard over the bluster and bullshit. Plus it was a Buckingham line and, as you knew, repeatedly and with great passion, I was more of a Nicks kind of woman. You shift your head slightly so that your mouth is close to my ear and you say: “I never broke the chain.” That was one they sang together. “Me neither” I say back. For a long, long time there’s just silence and two people holding on to each other as if they can squeeze out of existence the time they spent apart.
It’s when you buy me that drink that I tell you I knew you’d be there. I catch myself slipping back into my old habits, the bullish bravado, but I guess you can’t expect that to all fall away immediately. We’re in one of those pubs you used to insist existed near the school but never had the nerve to take me to. That part of you, the insecurity and the nervousness, has gone but there’s still something unsure about you; like you’re looking for something. Was it really me all this time? I see the way you look at me now and it’s like all those years just evaporate, you still see the wise-ass kid shooting her mouth off at the world, shooting first and asking questions later. I think you still see what I could have been and, just for a moment, I worry whether I’ll match up to the idea of me that you’ve been carrying around all this time. But then I realise you’ve seen the tattoos, maybe even clocked the track marks, and that look hasn’t changed. You still see me. Like you did back then.
We have a couple of drinks and talk. It’s like we never stopped. You ask me where I’m staying and I confess that I hadn’t thought that far ahead – it’s the first moment I let slip that maybe I wasn’t so sure you’d be where I expected you to be after all. I figure you probably haven’t changed so much and so I suggest that I stay at yours. I waited twenty five years for you to make a move on me and I’m damned if I’m going to wait another twenty five. And I can’t really afford a hotel.
Back at your house we dance. You put on Rumours – what else – and we shuffle and giggle our way across your lounge, towards your stairs. We kiss and you, in your terribly formal English way, invite me to bed. I almost feel like I should curtsy, take your hand and pull the full Stevie Nicks pose from the album cover, but I catch myself. I sense you might mistake the gesture, think I don’t take you seriously and I don’t want that. I recognise what I feel as love and joy and that’s all I want to convey. For a few moments I whirl on the spot to the music, silk scarf trailing up and around my head, dancing, spinning and turning. And then I stop, take you by the hand, and lead you up the stairs.