She meets the drummer of her friend’s boyfriend’s ex-band and flirts. Her flirting is vague but effective, a mixture of good posture, laughter, and attentiveness. They walk up a hill in San Francisco with the misty air smelling of mollusks and exhaust from people’s laundry machines. The bar’s sign glows hot-blue. He’s on a high after his set and hugs her with his warm, lanky body. They drink apricot beer over a sticky table top. He messages her on Facebook: Crazy idea but would you want to come visit me in Portland? She gets time off work, books the flight, goes shopping for new underwear.
The drummer texts her a picture of the pillow with a Ninja Turtles pillowcase he has ready for her, and then doesn’t text until the day she leaves for Oregon. Upon arrival, he’s excited and nervous just like she is, but he also tells her (and she can see it pains him to) that he’s not looking for anything serious. She’s neither surprised nor alarmed and though she knew this was the case, the particularly worded reaffirmation throws her off because what she really wants is for someone to care for her and now the slight possibility has vanished completely. But she smiles cheekily and says “duh” and they fuck shortly after she meets his five roommates, on his mattress on the floor, her hair splayed over Raphael.
At his gig on the second night, she wears the new dress she purchased just for this occasion, a sleeveless number with a sailor collar and pearly white buttons that don’t actually button. The sparkles in her eyeshadow feel heavy and sedating on her eyelids. She's homesick, but not exactly for home, for something broader and not as easily defined. The discomfort is slightly paralyzing and makes her afraid of the cold. When she feels like this she thinks about her mother who is no longer in her life due to alcohol abuse. She remembers the intense need for her mother as a child, calling from a sleepover with her stomach so twisted that she would throw up out of pure anxiety. After the divorce, when her mom went to bars looking for boyfriends, she would stay up waiting for the Volvo’s headlights to brighten the porch and when they did, her entire being would sigh with relief. She misses the bergamot remnants of Chanel No. 5 on her clothing. Watching PG-13 movies together when she was ten. She misses having somebody love her more than anyone else. She used to tell her mother everything and now she tells her absolutely nothing.
People trickle into the bar. Neon-green wristbands flicker. She sips semi-sweet hard cider from a pint as the drummer and his band lift their instruments onto the stage, chords snaking down steps into sockets. He waves at her and she waves back. Her feelings are conflicted, sad-happy. It’s all fake and temporary, like a mirage of one’s fantasy.
She watches their set from a tall bar stool, amidst the late-night aroma of buffalo cauliflower wings and five-dollar Tokyo Teas. She taps her foot, sucking on her necklace, sipping her cider. Girls woo in the drummer’s direction and dance salaciously. Afterwards, he joins her at the bar with his sweaty hair and loosened affection. She likes his music just fine but it was never, unfortunately, about the music.
When the headliner takes the stage, it’s almost eleven and the crowd is thick and boisterous. Testing, the singer says into the mic. One, two, three, four. And then the song begins, like a slice through space and time, like when you wander down a street with your headphones on, and the world is dreamy and emotionally-charged, like a movie, but one just about you and all your personal drama. As if by some invisible string, she leaves the drummer with his whiskey and elation and finds a spot at the front where the lead vocalist’s tapping foot rattles a can of Pabst. The veins in his neck protrude when he goes falsetto. Sometimes he plays the guitar, sometimes the keyboard, knocking his head back and forth to the beat. And sometimes he just stands there holding the mic tenderly and singing with his eyes squeezed shut.
At the end of the night, she introduces herself to the singer and expresses her instant adoration for him and his band. The singer smiles warmly and gives a little, thankful bow. They exchange numbers and in the morning he invites her for coffee while the drummer is at his day job and they meet at this artsy, alleyway cafe with her hair fishtail-braided in two.
He orders them Mexican mochas and she inquires about the band's origin story. He goes into his musical influences and occasionally, with a curious expression, she types the name of the mentioned musician into her phone. She asks about his lifestyle, how often they tour, does his music pay the bills. He tells her all about the strain of touring in a second-hand van with three other moody young men. Crashing on couches, in two-star motels, making no money, losing all their money, coming home to freezing apartments and boring jobs that insist they cover up their sentimental tattoos, all these people who spend their days listening to their favorite music on their computer or their phone, disregarding him completely. Of course, he says, a little whipped cream tickling his top lip, he doesn’t do it for the money or for the general public’s support. He does it because he must. Life would be far too unbearable if he didn’t make music, if he didn’t put something heartfelt out into the universe.
Then they walk for a while. In the sunshine it's nice but otherwise she has goosebumps up her arms. He tells her about his big, musical family and she tells him that her family is her cat. He apologizes and she laughs and flicks her hand in the air. They walk through a lush rose garden that reminds her of Edwardian films. The grass is dewy. She dips her nose into a huge, ballet-pink rose, the outer edges dog-eared but the center tight and perfectly swirled. She wishes she could carry the scent in her hair like cigarettes and barbecue. Nearby, the singer is notating something on a small pad of paper. He looks up to the sky briefly, tapping the pen to his chin, and then he returns to writing in the notepad. She removes the tiny elastic bands from her braids and begins to unravel her hair, which is still damp and smelling of the drummer’s herbal shampoo. She toys with the idea of attempting to shift the vibe in a more sexual direction. She could be blunt, tell the singer she wants him to fuck her, or she could gently warm him up to the idea. How good would it feel if he held her. But what about the drummer and their sordid arrangement? Does it matter if she doesn’t matter to him? And would the feeling she gets from listening to the singer’s music somehow be magnified by having sex with him? Or would it simply diminish?
He turns to see her. She smiles at him but that’s all. She takes a Lyft back to the drummer’s house and packs her bag. In the morning she will fly home as an empty shell. When the drummer returns from work, they watch the first Terminator movie and drink Rainers out of tie-dye koozies. She cries at the end. They go to bed together one last time and the strangeness is visceral. After fucking, he turns to his side and she shivers, watching the rain projected on the wall.
Back in Sacramento, the sun is microwaving the interior of parked cars and the cactus in her room is dying. She texts her friend that she’ll tell her all about it later, “once she’s recovered”. She showers, falls asleep sideways in her bed, wakes to a text from the drummer asking her if she got home safe. He doesn’t care if she were to have died. She types all sorts of frustrated and angry messages but ends up just saying: Yes!
For the rest of the day she listens to the full discography of the singer’s band, their two EPs and their four albums, one in particular from 2019 entitled ‘Star-Shaped Heart’, she repeats. In the morning the songs are stuck in her head and she sings them to herself, muddling the words. At work, she plugs in her headphones and listens again, while answering emails with embittered enthusiasm and transferring a paper copy of survey responses into Excel. Through the weeks, she listens to his music, adding songs to curated playlists and Googling lyrics, formulating stories and sentiments behind the abstraction. She experiences the world from inside the feeling the music gifts to her, which feels protective and understanding and enlightening, and the songs care for her, easing her through the harsh dawns and helping her into bed when its ridiculously late. They listen to her and feel the same way. They go “there, there”, stroke her hair, hold her, mend her, defend her. And then, one day, when it’s almost fall and the leaves are crisping and the nights are frosty with cold, she finally turns the music off. She texts the singer.
For what? Haha. Also hello.
For your music. I’ve been swallowing it whole.
Oh you’re very welcome. Is that all?
No that’s not all.
Natalie Lynn Harrison lives in Sacramento with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published with Miniskirt Mag and American Writer's Review, where her piece "Purging Diary" was a finalist in their 2022 nonfiction contest. She has a certificate in writing from UC Berkeley Extension. Follow her on Twitter @nattywritergirl.