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My Life in Heavy Metal: Storiesby Steve Almond
from My Life in Heavy Metal
Josephine Byron chased me all through college. Nobody could figure this out, not her friends, not mine, nor the frat boys who watched her wag across the wide lawns of our school. She was one of those women invariably referred to as striking, a great big get-a-load-of-that: gleaming black hair, curves like a tulip. Snow White refigured, made warmer, more voluptuous. She was also utterly convinced of herself, her good taste in clothing and men, her beauty and intellect, which she unfurled in earnest, vaguely Marxist jeremiads, while the rest of us gazed at her lips.
In the dim, yeasty haze of after parties and the stoned vistas of Hope Hill, on the cruddy avenues of our college town, Jo came to me bearing gifts, a fresh-baked loaf of bread, a Mardi Gras necklace, bearing her sly smile and plump white breasts. She let me have my way with her, though I was never quite sure, in the end, she wasn't having her way with me. At night, she kissed my body all over and in the mornings made me omelets. It was like having "Happy Birthday" sung to me each day: ecstatic and deeply disquieting.
A few months after graduating I moved to El Paso, where the daily paper needed a clerk. I lived alone, in a basement, and ate fried chicken from boxes. The shower in my place was like being spit on, so I got in the habit of showering at the YMCA, where I swam a few times a week. The lifeguard was a quiet woman who wore clunky glasses and a red Speedo one-piece with a towel wrapped around her lower body. If I stuck around long enough onWednesdays, she took off the towel and led kiddie classes in the shallow end. She was good with the kids, teasing them in Spanish, holding their bellies while they flailed. Her face was round, bookish, somewhat drab. Even without the glasses her eyes seemed far away. But she cut the water like a nymph.
I spent hours at the paper, hoping to distinguish myself. I sent Jo long, maudlin letters. I wanted her to love me again. I had been wrong to treat her with such disregard. At dusk, when the sun relented, I wandered El Paso's ragged downtown, wallowing in a sadness I considered sophisticated and insoluble. The plaza was always emptying: vendedores and day maids trudging back to Juárez, the sweet stale scent of lard punching out from El Segundo Barrio, the thrum of swamp coolers fallen away. Later, the smelting plant would fire up its chimneys and smoke would drift over the Franklin Mountains, which shadowed the city like a row of brown shrugs. To the east lay the trim, eerie avenues of Fort Bliss. To the west, the terraced estates of Coronado, where the swimming pools glowed like sapphires.
For seven months I handled weddings and obits. Then the pop music critic quit, and the managing editor, lacking other recourse, allowed me to sub. El Paso was, still is, part of the vast spandex-and-umlaut circuit that runs the length of 1-10. I reviewed virtually every one of the late-eighties hair bands at least once: Ratt, Poison, Winger, Warrant, Great White, White Snake, Kiss, Vixen, Cinderella, Queensryche, Skid Row, Def Leppard, Brittney Foxx, and Kiss without makeup. At my first concert, Metallica, the band's new bassist introduced himself to the crowd by farting into his microphone. This was the heavy metal equivalent of a bon mot.
Because we were a morning paper, I had to bang out my copy by midnight. I operated on a template involving an initial bad pun, a lengthy playlist?adjective, adjective, song title?and a description of the lead singer's hair. The rest was your standard catalog of puking yayas, flung undies, poignant duets with the rhythm guitarist back from rehab. I loved the velocity of the process: an event witnessed and recorded overnight. I loved the pressure, the glib improvisation; I loved seeing my byline the next day, all my pretty words, smelling of ink and newsprint.
And the truth is I loved the shows. I remember standing in the front row as Sebastian Bach, the lead singer of Skid Row, screeched "Youth Gone Wild." Bach was the quintessential metal front man, a blond mane and a pair of cheekbones. He strutted the stage like a drag queen, while the lead guitarist yanked out an interminable solo and the drummer became a shirtless piston. It was formulaic and mercenary and a little pathetic. But when I stared down the row, I saw twenty heads banging in unison, like angry mops. These were kids lousy with the bad hormones of adolescence, humiliated by the poverty of their prospects, and this was their dance, their chance to be part of some larger phallic brotherhood; the notes lashed their rib cages, called out to their beautiful, furious wishes.
I'd spoken to the lifeguard a few times, about holiday hours, lane dividers. I imagined having sex with her constantly. I did the same thing with the newsroom prospects, though with the lifeguard it was always more exciting, because we were both almost naked.
Her name was Claudia, pronounced in the beautiful Spanish manner, as three distinct, rolling syllables: Cloud-i-ahh. She lived by herself, in an apartment not far from the Y.
Every couple of weeks, I took her to some show or another. The idea was that some spark would leap between us. Then we would sneak into the Y, fuck on the squeaky tile, with her bent over a stack of kickboards, or underwater. But she was impossible to read behind her glasses. Our dates were like the ones I had in tenth grade, the tense drive to the mini-golf place, the exhausting formality, the burps unburped.
She spoke in the manner of a kindergarten teacher, softly, a bit too clearly, though when she took up Spanish her lisp blossomed and the tip of her tongue danced along her teeth. I felt sure this animation was a sign of some secret life behind her reticence.
What were we, exactly? Friends, I suppose. Companions in a certain lonely, postgraduate phase. Markers of time.
Besides, there was Jo, beautiful Jo, who called me every other weekend, who seemed to be remaining, in her final year of college, faithful to me, assuredly against the counsel of her friends. And who, true to her word, did appear, just a few weeks after her own graduation, marched up the jetway in red suede boots and nearly tackled me. Everyone just stared.
How nice it was to have a beautiful woman tackle me, to feel the eyes of the world upon me again, to have a long, soapy body over which to kvell. And how romantic I made El Paso seem. The plaza! The dollar movies! The oceanic desert! I took her to the lookout point at the top of the Franklins, where we necked and, amid the high schoolers and clumps of creosote, made the sweet foolish talk of love renewed.
A few days after she'd flown back East, Jo called. "I bought my ticket," she said.
"I'm coming out there. To live."
There was a pause, during which I tried very hard to recall whether we had discussed this plan, while also recognizing that I was expected to make some perfectly spontaneous sound of approval, thanksgiving, hosanna, and, in fact, even as I grasped this, grasped that I had failed, let the moment pass and would now be held accountable, asked to explain, possibly more than once, why I hadn't, didn't I love her, hadn't I wooed her for a year solid, questions which seemed perfectly reasonable but which I felt incapable of answering because my head was full of pudding.
That Sunday I took Claudia to the Metalfest at Bayshore, an artificial lake in the middle of absolutely nowhere, New Mexico. Children tended to drown at Bayshore. No one knew why. The lake was only three feet deep.
Heavy metal is an indoor genre. It requires reverberation, darkness, forced proximity. Without these, the crowd loses the sense of itself as a powerful tribe. The elaborate fantasy world of smoke and tinted lights and catwalks just doesn't work on a stage overlooking scrub.
The headliner, Jon Bon Jovi, seemed to recognize this. He took one gander at the pallid crowd and began casting about for a trapdoor. His bangs frizzed in the heat; his tights bunched. His falsetto drifted up and away with the dust. The show felt forced, and, in the way of such things, a little sad.
Afterward, I drove Claudia back to town. "So anyway," I said, "it looks like that friend of mine from college, Jo, is going to be heading out."
Claudia looked down into her lap. "I guess I won't be seeing you as much, then."
"Don't be silly," I said. "Why shouldn't I see you?" We hadn't done anything, after all. We were just...whatever we were.
"She'll be living with you?"
"Yeah. That's sort of the plan."
"When's she coming out?"
"Next Sunday," I said.
There was a difficult pause. Claudia stared out the windshield. The tops of her ears looked tender from the sun. "It doesn't seem fair," she said finally. She glanced at me and smiled a little. "You know, you get something, and I lose a friend."
"I don't know why you're saying that," I said. "It's not like that."
Claudia called me at work the next day. She wanted to have dinner on Saturday night.
"Sure," I said. "Where do you want to go?"
She giggled. "Why don't you make me dinner?"
Claudia showed up in a black dress and blue eye shadow. Her voice seemed oddly pitched, a bit too exuberant. She gulped at her wine and let the hem of her dress ride up her legs, which looked polished. I didn't have much to say. Nor did she. We were just waiting around for the alcohol to spring our bodies.
We moved to the couch, where we leaned and leaned and finally fell against one another sloppily. I slid my chin down her belly.
She was so much smaller than Jo, almost delicate, but when her knees slipped behind my head they clamped me so hard my bottom row of teeth bit into the underside of my tongue. I could taste my own blood and this mixed with the slightly acrid taste of her. Gradually, her legs sagged to the bed. Her pelvis vaulted into the air. I followed her up, pressed harder, and suddenly there was a warm liquid coming out of her, a great gout of something sheeting across my cheeks, down my chin, splashing onto the comforter. I figured, at first, she had urinated. But there was simply too much fluid coming out of her. By the time Claudia had regained her wits, and lowered herself to the bed, the puddle on my comforter was two feet across.
"Are you okay?" I said.
Claudia nodded bashfully and stumbled to the bathroom.
My second theory was that, as a lifeguard, pool water had somehow accumulated inside her and been released when her internal muscles relaxed. But the liquid was as tasteless and odorless as rain.
And you know what? I was goddamn thrilled. It was such a freakish thing she'd done. Claudia, this quiet little mermaid, with her spectacles and her lisp, with her dull brown eyes, who never so much as touched herself so far as I could tell, had not only surrendered her body to me but expelled, spumed, ejaculated some mysterious orgasmic juice all over my face. I felt like doing a victory lap around the puddle.
* * *
Jo felt my basement apartment was, as she put it, "the kind of place where a serial killer lives." She needed sun, she explained. And a porch.
Our new place was on the fourth floor of a brick building in Sunset Heights, El Paso's historical district. The neighborhood sat on a small rise overlooking the Rio. Locals once had watched Pancho Villa's forces battle federales on the plains below. The view now was of the colonias, the sprawling cardboard cities that enveloped Juárez proper.
Our apartment was bright and dusty. Every day a new piece of furniture appeared, or a houseplant. Jo made forays into Juárez, carrying back masks, wall hangings, a black leather whip I hoped to employ in some splendidly incompetent sex game but which was instead suspended tastefully over the divan. The kitchen began to fill with utensils?not just forks and spoons, but garlic presses and salad spinners. With a great, perhaps even vicious, efficiency, Jo erased the vestiges of my bachelordom. Closets became places where clothing was hung.
I arrived home one day to find the bed decked out in new colors. Jo wandered in from the other room. "What do you think?"
"Nice," I said. "Very colorful."
"I knew you'd like it." She hugged me. "It's Guatemalan."
I paused. "What happened to my old comforter?"
"You gave it away?"
Jo slipped her hand into one of my back pockets and gave me a playful squeeze. "Don't you like this one? We can give it a test-drive if you're not sure."
"Yeah. No. It's nice. I just don't understand why you needed to throw the old one out."
"I didn't throw it out, David. I gave it to charity. It had a stain." Jo began unbuttoning my shirt.
"A huge disgusting stain. Right in the middle."
I felt a fizz in my chest. "Whatever happened to washing?" I murmured.
"If you loved the thing so much," Jo said, "you should have washed it yourself."
Mostly, though, we had this beautiful new life. We went to a lot of parties. We took road trips along the rambling old highways of New Mexico and stopped in obscure towns for pie. We slept in on Sundays.
Sometimes, late afternoon, we would lie in the hammock strung across our balcony and watch thunderheads lip over the Franklins, releasing spindles of lightning. Everything changed when the rains came: the desert turned a rich brown and threw up the mulchy scent of creosote. Boys fluttered like salmon in the flooded gutters below. The slag heaps behind the smelter gave off the dull wet sheen of solder. Over in the colonias, mamas filed out of shanties to wash their children and fill metal drums with drinking water and thank the Lord.
Afterwards we listened to the world trickle and waited for the honeyed colors of dusk. With the sky suddenly cleared of smog, we could see all the way to the sierras south of Juárez, which looked like giant bones against the thirsty soil.
I took Jo to see Mötley Crüe. Probably it would have been better to start her off on Poison, one of the ballad bands. She kept looking at the front man, Vince Neil. He wore a suit of studded black leather, elevator shoes, a choker. "He's kidding," Jo shouted. "It's a joke, right?"
Neil leapt onto a speaker. "How many of you guys are gonna get some fucking poooontang tonight?"
The crowd went apeshit. The bass started in, along with the drums; the plastic seats began to quiver. Then a noise like wheels hitting a runway, which meant the guitars, churning down to their appointed chords. Jo looked as if she'd been struck in the back of the head with an eel. I'd given her a pair of earplugs, but the affect of 105 decibels is as much seismic as auditory. Strobe lights popped. Neil howled. His voice was a rapture of violent want, released to the crowd and returned in ululating waves. All around us, skinny boys emptied their bodies of sound. Everything about them banged. Bang bang bang. Their hair whipped the air, their slender arms knifed in around us.
I found Jo on the steps outside the arena, head between her knees. "If they could just turn it down a little," she said.
"Go ahead and take the car," I said. "I'll catch a ride from the night editor."
I figured Jo would be asleep when I got home. But she was sitting up in bed, a towel wrapped around her head.
"Feeling better?" I said.
"Yeah. How was the rest of the show?"
"No big deal. Nikki Sixx flashed the crowd his weenie, so that was pretty cool."
Jo took a sip of tea and fixed me with one of her concerned looks. "You don't really like that stuff," she said.
I had hoped this might be one of those times where we let our differences be. "You sort of have to get into the spirit of the thing," I said.
"What spirit would that be? The spirit of misogynist inner-ear damage?" She shook her head. "You don't like it. You're just being ironic."
"Okay," I said. "I'm going to go brush my ironic teeth."
"And that singer guy," Jo said. "What a getup. He looked like a piece of bad furniture. What's he supposed to be, some kind of stud? Some kind of big ladies' man?"
"It's a show," I said. "Showmanship."
"What gets me is that kids are paying money to listen to that crap. It's so indulgent. In a place like this, with so much real suffering."
"You shouldn't take it so seriously."
Jo waited a beat. "You do," she said. "You spend half your life interviewing these guys and critiquing their shows."
Copyright © 2002 by Steve Almond
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