The man I fell in love with was the drummer on Shooter Jennings’ album Put the O Back in Country. His name was Bryan. He’s pictured on the album cover, his tall, lean, spiky-haired frame leaning against a wall, his head turned, smiling. I don’t have the liner notes anymore (they were torn up by a jealous boyfriend a long time ago), but I can still describe the photo from memory.
That’s something I do. I memorize. So I memorized the songs. The album. I can recite it to you from start to finish. But that’s not what’s impressive. The impressive part was the lessons. The necessary lessons — about falling in love, about breaking up, about moving on. It’s about passion and glee and revenge and deceit, and how shit can spill out the edges of something once perfectly sewn.
If it seems like I fall in love easily, it’s because I do. I’ve learned that this is okay. This kinda-sorta happens at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland at my first Shooter Jennings concert with my boyfriend, except he’s not the one I fall in love with. He’s the one who introduced me to their music. This is for you, he said, and played track four. Their first single, “Fourth of July.” The song starts with alone. Just the word. The album ends that way too, and looking back, maybe that should’ve been significant. But who cares about that when you’re young and in love? Tonight we are at the Beachland, waiting for them to bring our song to life.
I watch stagehands lug equipment onto the stage – amps, stands, heavy rolls of extension cords. The drum kit is already in place. Band members wander out. Soon, everyone’s checking sound except the drummer. This is weird to see and even weirder to hear. There’s no pulse and I try to pick up strains of a melody, but it sounds discordant and out of focus. Sounds are here when they should be there. Then the stage curtain moves. A hand holding a red cup pushes through a gap in the fabric. The drummer walks out.
He is gorgeous. Gorgeous and tall, and I think for a second he might be one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. My boyfriend is irritated but I am transfixed. I get that way. Everything else disappears and world becomes a blur of ambient noise, a fuzzy film real with pictures you can’t see. It’s not like I haven’t seen pretty people before. But there are really pretty people who hold your attention for a few seconds, and then there are really pretty people that you’re instantly, insanely attracted to.
* * *
The story could have ended there, but it didn’t. I saw Bryan again a month later, after we exchanged pages of emails. I blew off two days of classes to drive the eight hours to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I plan to see him play at the Chameleon Club. He writes: I’ll put you on the list. I can’t wait to meet you.
The song “Fourth of July” is all summer days and hot glory and two lovers twirling in each others’ dust. It’s the ultimate love song. Ecstasy and journey spiral into perfection. It begins sweet with admiration, then literally sails into another goddamned atmosphere. It’s two people cruising down a strip of desert highway with a tape deck, alone, except for one another. This is your person and you are their person, and the rest doesn’t matter.
We head to the bus after the show. The tour bus, glorious thing that it is, is an entirely different universe. Time flows on a different trajectory. It stretches out and slows and folds over and into itself. It’s the thing closest to my idea of an alternate universe. Everything’s inverted. When we talk, we talk easily, as if he’s someone I’ve known forever. But there’s a shyness between us, too. Something I assumed would be one-sided. But in the moment he is grinning and giddy, and it doesn’t feel like all those tour bus stories I’ve heard at all.
When he kisses me – for the first time and every time after – everything stops. And when he asks me to go to the back of the bus – a universe within universes – the breath is sucked out of me. I feel like I don’t need oxygen around him. This is why I come back. Why I keep coming back. When we finally get to the crescent couch in the back, doors drawn shut, I knew this was what I wanted. Not so much the possibility of sex, but a promise of intimacy. Two people alone, sealed off from the world, in a vacuum of our talk, our breathing, or bodies, our breath.
Pale moonlight drizzled through the window blinds. I peered out and saw breath collecting on the glass, a reminder of life inside this metal capsule, the streetlight bouncing off the slick wet street a reminder of a city with roads I really didn’t know. I’m not going to do anything you don’t want me to do, he said. He asked if he could kiss me. I answered with a hand around the back of his neck.
When we pull apart, I can’t speak. Stand up, he says. I stand. Turn around. I turn. Instead of waiting for the next request, I unbutton my jeans and inch them halfway down. I felt him standing behind me, tracing the exposed skin with his hand, starting beneath my breast, moving down my side.
You’re beautiful, he says. He holds my shoulders and turns me so I’m facing him, presses his forehead to mine. I think his eyes are closed but I don’t know for sure, because mine definitely are. I still don’t know how to breathe.
He pulls up my jeans and buttons them. He kisses me.
I’m not going to sleep with you, he said. Not now. Not like this.
He walked me to my car and kissed me goodnight.
* * *
I left the club at three in the morning. Alone. I strip down in the hotel room, tossing my clothes on the floor. I turn on all the lights in the bathroom and run hot water for a bath. As the steam rises I bring my hands to my face, tracing what he traced. It’s a moment of voodoo where I call him back, relive tonight’s memory. I can still smell him; still feel his hands, their rough, drum-calloused tips trailing invisible planes of perfect lines beneath them.
I turn off the water, drain the tub, and slip into bed. I don’t want to wash him off after all.
* * *
These songs are about traveling — about traveling with a lover, traveling alone. If you listen closely it will tell you how to find things you need. Compromise in distance and the comfort in space. I followed Bryan to different parts of the country. We did what we could, but in the end we were better off surviving separately. But I’ve got the songs. Listen closely. Beneath the whiskey-soaked sorrow and hell-bent breakup sex, they’re about duality and balance. Learning to live. It’s not just about love and it’s not about dependence. It’s about learning how to fall and to let fall.
Another night in another city, somewhere toward the end, we’re lying in a hotel bed. He has to show me something, he says. He opens his phone to a video of his son, stomping around in huge black boots. He reached up and rubbed his eyes and I realized he was crying. I took his hand. You think you know what it’s like to love, he said. And then you have a child. And the whole bottom just drops out of it.
I pulled his head to my chest and we laid there, his voice barely above a whisper, as tears dripped onto my neck. He told me things about love and fear, about things he was scared of – the people you love most not remembering you, moving on without you. This is falling.
We learned to let our guard down, learned how to fall apart safely in someone else’s arms and let them do the fixing for a while. And when we ended my heart was broken, but those traveling songs pieced it back together again. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s this: life is a song. A love song. A sad song. A traveling song.