“Marah. It’s spelled M-a-r-a-h but sounds like hurrah, which you will be shouting a lot if you come see them play.” My coworker Steve rifles through the mess of papers on his desk. “Look, here’s my extra ticket. Just COME!”
“Are they really that good? I ask.
“Tonight will change your life if you come."
Although I didn’t know it then, Steve had never uttered truer words. The phone trilling on his desk interrupts his pleas.
“Just think about it. You never do anything, you bitch.” After uttering this obscenity, his tone jumps three octaves when he answers the phone with a polite, “FOX news, this is Steve how can I help you?” He mouths threats in my direction then waves me off.
I wander back to my desk, pausing to steal a handful of Smarties from the newsroom assignment manager's private stash. I was planning to see a movie that night. The Bourne Supremacy with my new crush, the adorable Matt Damon.
That was the extent of my sex life; crushing on Matt Damon. That’s the way I wanted it and I had no intention of dragging over to some seedy little bar in downtown Salt Lake City.
Seeing movies alone made me feel powerful. A Fuck You to all my happily dating and married girlfriends. I don’t need any of you co-dependent bitches to have fun. Last year my boyfriend had whispered the bone-crushing “I just don’t think you’re the right girl for me.” He dropped that bomb one sunny, spring morning after we’d been dating for nearly a year.
I was devastated. He was supposed to be The One! That, coupled with the fact that I was the one being dumpe, sent me on an embarrassing search for self that involved calling him weekly in tears, trying to convince him he was wrong. I just couldn’t let it go. So I took what I could get, becoming his friend with benefits. Mistakenly assuming that he would fall in love with the girl who lost all sense of self-esteem and slept with her ex-boyfriend because she couldn’t move on.
This sorry state of affairs limped on painfully for another year. I languished in love limbo for month after torturous month. Not quite a girlfriend, not just a friend and not sure how to extricate myself from the messy relationship. Oftentimes, I’d be doing fine on my own, moving forward, trying to date new men then some grand gesture from Andy would whip me violently back into the deep end where I’d nearly drown all over again.
I’d finally managed to dog paddle to shallow waters. I wasn’t gasping for breath, feeling death would be respite from the heartbreaking rollercoaster but I was still fully susceptible to the strong currents continually trying to lure me back.
When it comes to love or even just a crush, my Achilles heel is mystery. Mysterious men are Kryptonite. Take a video store clerk who lives with his mom, add a dash of mysterious aura and I’m sold. Mystery cloaks any personality defect in a swath of cool. Mystery was the ingredient that prolonged my relationship with Andy.
I had slowly, painfully weaned myself down to drunk dials only, which, if I'm being honest were still frequent. But I was going out on my own, spending time hiking with my new Black Labrador Retriever, Max, and listening to music. And working. As a news producer at the local FOX affiliate, my work day stretched late into the night, until the evening news ended.
I sigh and immerse myself in writing stories about grisly murders, car accidents and the ever-changing liquor laws in Mormon controlled Salt Lake City.
At ten o’clock that night I congratulate my anchors on another fantastic newscast and amble tiredly to my forest green Dodge Durango. The movie starts at 10:10. That gives me ten minutes to navigate the freeway and downtown traffic.
I am singing along to The Strokes when my cell phone lights up the car interior in spectral green hues. Seeing Steve’s number on the display, I position my thumb over the ignore button. I had no desire to spend the evening in some smoky club listening to a band I had never heard of. After a split second of internal debate, for some inexplicable reason I answer.
“What do you want?” I joke.
“Jake says The Bourne Supremacy sucks.” Steve lies. “Come hang out. Jake brought weed.”
Jake is a news reporter. It’s entertaining to hang out with the suit-and-tie types in the off-hours. Often they're shockingly different from their on-air personas. Particularly in Utah, where, to cater to the vast right wing contingency, on-air personalities are cultivated into Mr. Rogers and the woman you’d imagine to be his wife. Having facial hair is considered risque. One local anchor plays the drums which in reality is fairly run-of-the-mill but for an anchor he's considered a real wild child in a Bill Clinton-is-so-hip-because-he-plays-the-sax way. Please.
“And all drinks are on us!” Steve continues to plead his case. The headlights of my truck flash across the bright green freeway sign, Downtown Exit 2 Miles. Thirty seconds to make up my mind.
Looking back, the outcome of my entire life hinged on that single decision. To go or not to go? Movie or rock gig? Like a locomotive barreling down tracks, one switch of a lever and those on board the train end up in Albuquerque instead of Akron.
“Okay!” I laugh. “I’ll be there in five. Meet me in the parking lot.” I blurt the words that change the course of my entire life. To be honest with you it was the call of the weed that had me bar bound.
Five minutes later: Like a high-schooler behind the school building I am sucking pot smoke from an old Diet Coke can scavenged from the backseat of my truck. “So how did you hear about this band?” I ask as I inhale metallic weed flavored with the syrupy reminiscence of Diet Coke.
“My brother and I have loved them for years. When I lived in Memphis we used to drive for hours to see them live.” Steve exhales a puff of smoke. “This is their fourth album. They’re pretty big back East and overseas.” Steve passes our home-made contraption to Jake.
“Are they, like, old guys then?” I ask.
“Nah. The lead singer and the guitarist are brothers. They’re in their late twenties, maybe early thirties.. My age.”
“Oh, so they are old guys” I nod seriously. Jake snorts and releases a chimney's worth of smoke.
“Fuck you guys, let’s go!” Steve laughs.
Like Spicoli and his gang from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, we spill from my truck, smoke billowing around us as if the interior of my car is on fire.. We giggle like the high adults we are and head for the front doors of Halo.
Gaining access to a bar in Utah is tantamount to entering a foreign country. Liquor laws crafted by Mormon lawmakers require bar-goers to purchase private memberships. As an added lock on the unwanted armor of righteousness bestowed upon you - whether you want it or not - you can’t order two drinks for yourself at the same time. You must finish one before the bartender can place the next in front of you. Bars shut down at one o’clock in the morning as well, I suppose in compliance with the No Dancing After Two In The Morning law still languishing on the books. Footloose wasn't made in Utah for nothing.
After I pass inspection and receive my passport to Liquor Land, an inky stamp leaking across the back of my right hand, I pull up a stool and plop down at the bar.
Halo is a cozy, intimate bar in downtown Salt Lake City. Cozy meaning they’ve managed to hide the dirt with strategically placed Christmas lights. But it works. The flattering lighting casts all the right objects in shadow, spreading a gentle glow on the faces of even the most hardcore of alcoholics.
A dozen folks amble around two pool tables in the back, keeping an eye on the changing constellations of balls in anticipation of their next shot. A smattering of people are seated at the flimsy tables placed around the room.
On the wall opposite the pool tables is a stage. Well, it's more of a raised portion of the floor. Atop this "stage" rests a set of drums, guitars, a keyboard, amplifiers and various carrying cases and black boxes.
On the side of one guitar case I noticed the word MARAH, emblazoned in thick, white spray paint, bleeding down the side of the coffer. The band is obviously here, but its members are nowhere to be seen.
“What time is the show supposed to start? Is there an opening band?” I ask Steve.
“Eleven. No opening band. Marah should be up any time. I’ll bet they hate playing shit places like this.”
“What do you mean?” I ask
“Low turnout, lame music scene. Their gigs back east are legendary. Jesus. Last show I went to at The Stone Pony was unbelievable. Jam packed, wall to wall groupies.”
“Groupies?” I ask.
“Yeah, they have women that follow them everywhere. My brother’s girlfriend used to. That’s how she met my brother.”
“Groupies.” I snort derisively at the unfamiliar concept. Who would follow a band around? Little did I know I would soon be THAT girl.
“Let’s get our drink on.” Jake, returns to the bar from a cigarette break out back and is rubbing his hands together in anticipation of ordering a cold beer.
“Jake, have you ever heard this band?”
“They’re amazing. Steve’s been loaning me their albums. Jagermeister?” He asks me if I want a shot.
“I guess. I’m stoned. Don’t let me get too drunk you liquor-pusher.” I giggle. My body is relaxed, my head buzzing slightly and I feel good. Better than I have in a while.
"I saw the band out back. They definitely don’t look thrilled to be playing here in the land of Zion. Who would be? Jesus Christ. No pun intended.” Jake laughs at his own joke and hands me a shot of ice cold Jagermeister which I promptly pour down my throat. It slides down like ice cold syrup and begins burning my stomach in a not unpleasant way.
“How’re things with Andy?” Steve asks. Being my confidante at work, he knows every peak and valley from the past four years of my life.
“Eh.” I shrug. “I’m down to drunk dials only. Which reminds me. Here.” I shove my cell phone at him. "Don't let me have this. Just bring it to work tomorrow."
“So you’ll probably stop at his house on your way home tonight then?” he jokes knowingly.
“Fuck.” I sigh. “Probably. Against what better judgment is left rattling around in my brain. Serves only to prolong my agony. Can’t seem to beat this traumatic break-up disorder.”
“Is he dating anyone else?” Steve asks.
“I don’t think so. I only ask every few months or so. The fucked up thing about it all is that I don’t even want to love him. I don’t want to be with him. If I think back on the time we spent together, it was fun. But it wasn’t amazing. He just fit into the nice life I had planned for myself. I don’t know. Sometimes I think we were meant to be together and other times I think I’m just pissed that he isn’t in love with me.”
Steve nods sympathetically. Encouraged, I continue to ramble as I tend to do when anyone asks me about Andy. “But there is no one to date. Nobody interesting lives in Salt Lake City. They’re all cookie-cutter boys who were raised Mormon and feel ridiculously rebellious for smoking pot. Ultimately they’ll get married in the temple without ever questioning the religion we’ve all been spoon fed since birth. They’re all unbelievably arrogant in the most ignorant way. And they all wear the standard uniform; button down shirts, jeans, flip-flops and ski beanies!” I cut my rant short to slurp down the shot of Jagermeister that Steve has been taunting me with for most of my whiny monologue.
I can joke about the sorry state of my love life, but truly, the past year has been agonizing. I feel as if my heart has been ripped from my chest Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom-style and like that poor man I am continuously dangled over the fiery pits of hell, screaming and crying from the pain.
I would avoid Andy with the best of intentions, literally counting the days in which I managed to refrain from contacting him. At week one I’d be in good shape, congratulating myself on my fortitude. During week two I would be certain I had moved on. So certain, that by week three I’d talk myself into calling him, positive that friendship was the right idea. The mature thing to do, I'd justify.
Of course, by the end of the night hanging out together I’d break down, begging him to explain why I wasn’t the girl for him. He’d tell me he loved me, he just wasn’t in love with me. A shitty line on par with It's Not You, It's Me. I would storm home, angry, vowing never to call him again. Of course the next month the cycle would repeat itself.
In an effort to change the subject I engage Jake, a new father, in the requisite small talk about his exquisitely chubby baby girl. He’s just putting away the photos he spends ten minutes displaying with great fanfare when the lights dim and the crowd of maybe fifty fans begins to applaud.
I don’t remember who said what first, what song was played first, I can only recall an explosion of sound and personality and stage swagger the likes of which I have never, ever experienced.
At first I chalk it up to the pot. Then I spend ten minutes trying to figure out if the band is really THAT good or if it’s just the perfect combination of liquor and marijuana coursing through my system.
When members of the audience simply can’t contain their tapping feet and clapping hands and jump dramatically onto the dance floor I decide Marah is THAT good.
My eyes are repeatedly drawn to the guitar player. He's a scrappy fellow clad in tight black jeans and a striped, button-down collared shirt topped with a dapper black and white pin-striped vest.
Guitar Boy stalks the stage like a lion, tossing about dark tussled hair that hangs in sweaty clumps over his smooth forehead. Round, shadowy eyes peer from the disheveled tresses, occasionally giving the audience a once-over.
Mostly he seems to play for his himself and his band mates. I know I’m in trouble when I catch myself gazing at bulging veins in sinewy arms that thrust boldly from rolled up sleeves. The veins bunch and flex as his strong fingers expertly work the guitar strings. Periodically he takes an obviously satisfying drag off an ever-present cigarette, then wedges it back between the strings near the head of his guitar. My Rock Boy, as I possessively refer to him in my mind, appears to be channeling the ghosts of rock stars who came before.
This display of fireworks is a complete change of pace from the too-cool-for-school hipsters bands like The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and Interpol currently dominating the rock scene. After scarcely daring to avert my eyes, even just for a moment, I determine that Rock Boy is completely unaware of his cocksure stage persona. He is there to play his music, play it well and invite us to join him in a fierce rock orgy if we're so inclined.
“Those two are brothers.” Steve indicates Rock Boy and the lead singer, a mysterious looking fellow with pale skin and scraggily dark hair snaking from underneath a news cap.
“I know, you told me.” I shush him.
Interested to observe their sibling dynamic, I turn my attention to the lead singer.
Dressed in an army green jacket with patches sewn onto it in a haphazard fashion, black jeans with red Converse high tops peeking out the bottoms, he commands attention, but in a quieter more jaggedly docile manner than his brother.
My nerves are tingling and my ears are alive. My scalp prickles and the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck are standing at attention.
“Fever! Play Feeeeevvvver!” To my embarrassment Steve is slurring out song requests. But the band seems amused, chuckling appreciatively as they launch into another song. I have no idea if it’s the song Steve is drunkenly clamoring for but I love it.
The music. It’s catchy, loud, emotional and raw. It plays my spine like a xylophone, it makes my heart pound like the drums reverberating through the bar. It’s rock & roll infused with bits of punk and folk. I detect motown, country, even some catchy pop choruses. It’s everything. Jake turns toward me, a big grin splitting his face nearly in half.
“These guys fucking rock!”
“I know!” I shout back, unable to keep a smile from stretching my lips.
The band finishes the next song and my Rock boy begins to speak.
“Thanks, you guys!” I hold my breath, straining to hear every word above the glasses tinkling distractingly behind me as the bartender does his duty.
“Thanks for coming out on a Thursday.” He continues with a humorous story about a transvestite and some such rock & roll on the road madness. Then the band launches itself into a tinkling, beautiful song I later find out is called “Feather Boa”.
It’s not his hilarious, self deprecating story but his voice that shakes me to my very core. Deep, ragged tones, like a mellow red wine with a zinger aftertaste.
Confused at my visceral reaction to the guitar player I choose the end of the next song as the optimum time for a restroom break.
“Be right back” I mouth at Jake and Steve.
I wander to the bowels of the club in search of the ladies loo. After washing my hands I scrutinize my reflection in the mirror. Yuck! I’d only come to smoke a little pot and relax, but suddenly I cared very much about my appearance.
It's an arid summer night in August. Not being an on-air personality, my work dress code is pretty much anything goes as long as my ass isn’t hanging out.
I am wearing the knee length A-line skirt and black tank top I’d worn to work earlier. My thick, wheat colored hair is slicked into a ponytail and I’ve already sweated off what little make-up remained on my face after a long day in the newsroom.
“Shit.” Nothing can be done to remedy the no make-up situation as I’m not the kind of gal who totes around a bag for touch-ups. I slide the rubber band down the length of my ponytail and place it around my wrist for safekeeping. I twist on the sink faucet and pat water on my hair in a futile effort to smooth out the dent left behind by the ponytail. I stand back and take a gander at my handiwork. Not quite the tussled, wet look I was shooting for but it will have to do.
What are you doing, I ask myself. You’re such an idiot! Attempting to flirt with some random guy in a band that you’ll never see again. I wash my hands and consider my situation. But I need to get over Andy already! I have to move on, take chances.
I dry my hands and pause momentarily for a final peek in the full-length mirror. Not amazing, but not terrible. The saving grace of the haggard girl staring back at me is her skin. It's at its best because of daily hikes with Maxie boy.
Healthy and tan, a natural blush has developed on my cheeks. My eyes are shining and my blonde hair, finally growing out from The Great Hair Disaster of 2002, hangs halfway down my back in soft waves. Ashamed at my preening, I leave the bathroom resolved to listen to the music then take my pathetic ass directly home.
“You missed Firecracker!” Steve shouts when I reclaim my stool. I had intently watched the guitarist during my return to see if he was aware of my existence. No dice. He was completely engrossed in the music.
“My favorite song.”
“You let your hair down.” Jake observes with a wicked grin.
“So.” I reply defensively.
His grin widens. “Someone’s getting her groove on!” he sing-songs like a five-year old.
“Shut up! I have no groove to get on.” I cross my arms defiantly.
“Monica likes Da-ave!” Steve chants in a sing-song voice.
“Who’s Dave?” I ask.
“The lead singer.”
“Not him. That one.” I nod at the guitarist. “He is the sexiest man I’ve ever seen. It’s gotta be the whole rock guitarist James Dean cool thing though. He’s probably dumb as a box of rocks.”
Steve and Jake exchange knowing looks and innocently sip their beers.
“Anyway” I continue, “My head was sore from the ponytail, that’s why I took it out. If you had hair, you’d know that.” Steve, bald as a billiard ball, laughs.
Even though I tell myself I don’t care, my eyes continually sneak back to the guitar player. Look at me! I plead in my mind. Over here! He apparently can’t read minds and continues his guitar sparring with the lead singer, his brother.
When Rock Boy leaps onto the bar and crazily slaps at bongos that his brother holds aloft I know I am a goner. I am done for. It’s in the middle of a raucous song I later learn is called Round Eye Blues that causes the audience to leap to their feet and cheer. The guitarist clambers up onto the bar as patrons sweep beer glasses out of his way in the nick of time.
As the song winds down Rock Boy pounds the bongos like his life depends on this one final act of exaltation. Emotions are at fever pitch throughout the bar. You can feel the air come to life with the electrical current crackling from person to person. People are looking around at each other, eyes wide in amazement, trying to confirm that everyone is experiencing what they’re feeling.
I feel it. My mouth drops open and tears form in my eyes. He bangs the bongos faster and faster until his hands are a blur and I can't see them clearly anymore. I realize I’m holding my breath. I try to breathe. I can’t. Sweat streams down his face like the tears running down my cheeks. He finishes in a thunderous torrent of banging, jumps to the floor and returns to the stage. He thirstily gulps a beer, takes a drag off his cigarette, grabs a harmonica from his arsenal and launches into another song.
“Holy shit” Steve mouths at me. “That was awesome.”
I nod dumbly and order another shot of Jagermeister.
Two shots of liquor later the show is ending with my particular fellow writhing on the floor, making love to his guitar, sweat pouring from his body. And then it’s over. The music bubble pops and the real world comes crashing in like a sonic boom. I feel like I did when I was five and had just finished tearing into my last Christmas gift.
The crowd thins as people quietly gather purses and jackets and make their way to the door. Others wander back for another game of pool, a smoke, a restroom pit stop. People are speaking in hushed, reverential tones. The muffled library voices are unusual for a bar that's usually as rowdy as it is dowdy.
“I’m going to the merchandise table.” Steve says.
“I’ve gotta go.” Jake says while checking his watch. He tosses a twenty on the bar and gulps a final swig of beer. “See you guys tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? I can’t comprehend tomorrow. I am frozen, staring into space, trying to metabolize the musical orgy I just experienced.
I swing around on my stool in search of Rock Boy. Crush or no crush, I’ve got to tell him how amazing that was. How he has, in the span of two hours, changed the way I feel about music, about life. But he is nowhere to be found. I sigh and turn to the bar and order a glass of water to kickstart my post alcohol hydration routine that is key to avoiding those brain-splitting hangovers I collected in my early twenties like some people collect stamps.
A short man with robin's egg blue eyes, a mop of dark, curly hair and a kind face grabs the stool next to me and orders a beer.
“Hi!” he blurts happily.
“Hey.” I recognize him as the band’s keyboardist.
“You from around here?” He asks.
“Born and raised.”
“Me, I’m from—“ He’s talking but I don’t hear a word. His mouth is moving but his face is a Picasso of strange shapes. That’s because I am focused on the man who sits down on his other side. It’s him. The guitarist. Rock Boy. And he’s looking at me. I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me and nothing else exists.
The three of us engage in the obligatory small talk for several minutes. “Who are you here with?” The guitarist asks.
“My friend", I enunciate FRIEND. "From work, he’s over there buying a tee-shirt.” A glance at Steve confirms he’s getting the lead singer to sign a CD.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a news producer for a local channel.”
He nods and takes a sip of beer. “Impressive.”
“Not really” I reply. “I think what you do is much more interesting.”
“You think?” His beautifully curved lips, the color of the inside of a seashell, twitch in amusement. “Come on the road with us. You may change your mind.”
“No way.” I gush like a groupie. “You guys are amazing. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it. Makes me feel stupid for watching MTV or liking some of the bands that I listen to. They don't even compare.”
He laughs. “Well thank you very much. I take it you’ve never heard us before tonight?”
“No. My friend, Steve, he’s from Michigan and has liked your band for a long time. I just agreed to come with him.”
“Oh, so you had to be dragged here.” He teases. “I’m Serge by the way.”
“Serge? That’s an interesting name.” I consider, “I like it. Unusual. French right?”
“Very good. My dad’s French.”
“He’s really French or his ancestors are? Because that doesn’t count or else I’d consider myself Irish.” I tease.
“He’s fully French. Accent, likes cheese, he's even a painter. The whole nine yards.”
I giggle. “He likes cheese? He is officially French then. Oh and I’m Monica.”
“Yeah-” my voice trails off. We’re staring at each other, amazed at what we’re both feeling. I’m smiling and I can’t help it. The corners of my mouth keep turning up of their own accord. Like a rubber ducky that won't stay under the water, every time I try to make my lips obey, they pop upward. Serge is smiling at me, I grin back, then we both laugh.
“We’re just leering at each other like loons!” I manage to say through my smile.
“I know.” He laughs. “Listen, I’ve got to go help the boys load our van.”
My face falls. “Are you leaving tonight?”
“No, we’ve checked into a hotel just down the street.” He pauses, seemingly considering something. “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” He gets a few feet before turning back. “I’m serious, don’t go anywhere.” He shakes his finger in mock severity then disappears out the club door.
I release my breath in a gasp. My mind is a dryer full of tumbling clothes. I’m trying to sort my laundy -- er - thoughts when Steve returns laden with Marah CD’s, and two tee-shirts.
“I’m headed home. Want me to walk you to your truck?” He asks.
“Um.. Nah. I think I’m going to finish my water,” I say innocently.
“Riiiiight.” He looks me in the eye. “Be safe. And call if you need anything. Oh, and one more thing..” He stops and I already know what he’s going to say.
“Don’t say it!” I plead, using my arms to shield me from his smugness.”
“I HAVE to!”
I lower my arms. “Okay then. Get it over with.”
“I TOLD YOU SO!” Satisfied with himself he smiles, gives me a quick hug and leaves.
I’m sitting at the bar, sneaking cocktail olives, sipping a glass of ice water and swinging my feet self-consciously when Serge returns.
“Hey.” We smile.
“Again with the smiling?” He asks.
“Can’t help it.” I respond.
“I don’t mind. You have a beautiful smile.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Not all girls have your dimples.” I blush ferociously at his answer.
Five minutes later finds us frantically making out in the dark hallway that leads to the restroom.
“I’m really not usually like this.” I gasp.
“Me neither!” He replies breathlessly.
My knees are threatening to give out and I’m dizzy with desire when we hear someone calling for Serge. We ignore it and continue with our frenzied shenanigans.
“Serge!” The voice again, this time near our dark corner. Serge brushes a hair off my face and grabs my hand. We stroll nonchalantly back into the main bar area. It’s the lead singer, Serge’s brother.
“We’re heading to the hotel.” He nods at me and turns back toward the front of the bar.
“I guess this is it?” I say to Serge. He’s looking at me intently. I can see that he’s considering something, but I don’t know what.
“Do you want to come back to my hotel? Just to hang out? Talk?" He laughs at his question. "I’m trying not to sound lecherous but 'do you want to come back to my hotel' is a tough sentence to say to a girl you’ve just met at a bar.”
“Yes, I would actually. I’ll give you a ride.” I volunteer boldly.
To be continued...