Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives
PART IV: YOUNG ADULTHOOD
WHERE THE UNIVERSES ARE
When I was 24, I spent too many hours alone. I suffered, sometimes, from a kind of consciousness pollution - my thoughts in isolation took on a sickening air. The slowly descending sadness inside my head never fully descended. On darker days, it filtered my perception so that everything I looked at seemed to be an empty form. Sometimes the sadness would be pierced by a barrage of ignoble thoughts, usually sexual or violent, often both.
But music helped. It wasn't a cure-all, nothing close to that, but in its purity it offered something to focus on, an alternative to my own corrupted feelings. I imagined each song reflecting the impulses and emotions and opinions of the outside world, so through close listening I felt connected to the world, and could then escape myself. And it made me feel less lonely, like there was somebody else in the room.
I took a job at Tower Records. I had majored in planning in college, Bachelor of Arts in Regional and Suburban Planning, to be specific, but planning jobs were hard to find. Given my attachment to music, Tower seemed to be the best way station for me, until I could find something in my field.
I passed two years at Tower. At age 26, I was still looking for something better. Monotony stretched on and on, endless. I craved beauty, especially in people. Beauty seemed to be the opposite of monotony. I had never had a beautiful girlfriend; I myself was not beautiful or handsome or recognizably charismatic, and certainly not rich. I was known as a "nice guy," and although the few beauties I had met stressed the importance of having a "nice guy" for a boyfriend, they never seemed to put that philosophy into practice.
Beautiful music, then, had to serve as a substitute for a beautiful girlfriend. I searched the bins at Tower. I didn't know classical or jazz, so I stuck to pop. Then I came across a lovely record sleeve in the vinyl section. It was by a band called The Still Forever; the song was called Nadja's Dream. I was certain that no one I knew had heard of them, so this gave me distinctive knowledge, discoverer's privilege.
I took the record home, put it on, and from the first I was hooked: the guitarist played liquid arpeggios Spanish-style, with his fingers rather than a pick, and the singer sounded like a citizen of eternity, with doubletracked vocals coming through a cloud of hazy reverb. It was like listening to musical platonists, who were tapped into the ideal forms behind appearances.
A few days later, an angel of cool appeared in Tower Records. He wore a wide suede belt, tattered-out jeans, and a Lord Byron shirt. I knew, of course, the Still Forever song did not actually invoke him, yet in my mind there formed a strong connection between the music and him.
It was a slow night at Tower, a Monday, and I was behind the register. I saw him from the back, as he fingered through the racks. His hair caught my attention: it was longish and intricately graded, the color of polished chestnut. The hair and his clothes reminded me of the Still Forever record, so I put on the mix tape I had made with Nadja's Dream on it.
When he came to the register, he pointed to the air.
- Damn. This music is great. Who is this?
-The Still Forever, I said.
-Never heard of them.
-Nobody has, I said. I just found it a few days ago. They apparently only have some vinyl singles out, on a tiny label based outside London.
-It almost sounds like they're fucking up the changes, but still, it's cool. Love that reverb, man. You could soak that up with a sponge.
I nodded. He handed me his credit card, and I checked the raised name to make sure. Justin Innocente.
-Hey, I said with an awkward smile. Did you use to live in Beechwood Park, New Jersey?
-Jesus! I did. Are you from there?
-I think I lived around the corner from you, off Highridge Avenue. I'm Ralph Stallo.
-Oh man! I remember you. From the old neighborhood.
Justin and I grew up on the same block, but he was three years older than me, and didn't play games with us in the street. He played guitar, and his hair fluttered in the breeze when he walked. A succession of pretty girls used to come to his house and ring his doorbell. I thought of him as an angel of cool.
As it happened, Justin was in a rush that night in Tower - his band was playing in a few hours. ("Hence these clothes," he said to me.) But he gave me his card, and asked me to call so we could catch up over drinks. I felt a pang when he mentioned meeting for drinks.
# # #
We met a week later, at a dive bar called the Raven.
-Anyway, man, he said after we had caught up, I loved that Still Forever song you played in Tower. Tell me about the Still Forever.
I smiled, guiltily. Through the dim bar light his skin was glowing like a fisherman's. Drinking with him, talking to him, right across the table, seemed unreal, even after a few beers. I felt select. But I tried not to let on.
-I think they're amazing. Every couple of months a tiny tiny label in Hampshire, England puts out a vinyl single of theirs. They have seven so far, one hundred pressings each. I have four, the other three are sold out. They're only a trio - Martin, Lawrence, and Grant - but they really know how to fill out the sound. Martin sings, plays guitar, and writes all their songs. The thing is, I've never seen anything about them in the mainstream music press. Even the pop geeks at Tower haven't heard of them. I found one interview in an obscure webzine called Tangents. Martin said they decided to start a band after discovering two French surrealist novels, Nadja and Last Nights of Paris. He said the goal of the band was to locate the marvelous in the familiar. And he said the two places their music was best listened to was in a dead-end suburb at mid-afternoon, or in a treehouse at the Palace of Versailles.
Justin had a gleam of interest in his eye. Regaling beauty was an excellent feeling. For once the energy and noise of a bar -which often made me feel like I was bleeding internally -seemed to be working in my favor. My buzz started to coalesce with his looks, and his face, in turn, made the alcohol seem more potent.
There was no Still Forever on the jukebox, of course, so I tried to conjure up one of their songs in my head. An imaginary Martin sang in my head.
-Do you think it's possible to find the three missing singles? Justin said.
-You know, I thought about that. I emailed their label, which is like one very unorganized guy. He said that he remembered sending out one or two to stores in DC.
- Cool! We should go scavenging sometime. Maybe we could go some Saturday if you have the time. I mean, unless you have a girlfriend tying you down all weekend.
He made a droll face, which I found hard to interpret.
- Nope, I said. All the time in the world. How about yourself?
- Free as a bird, he said. Some of my friends are doing the marriage-and-kids thing, but I'm just like: why? They don't seem that thrilled with it, to tell you the truth. Whereas I'm just happy doing my thing.
I nodded. That didn't seem enough for him.
- Aren't you? he said.
- Aren't I what?
- Happy doing your thing?
- Oh, yeah, I said. I mean, guess so.
He took a swig, then smiled. - And what is your thing? he said.
- Oh, you know, I said. Just hanging out. There was a pause. I had both hands wrapped tight around my beer. His eyes still gleamed. You could have dismissed him as a pretty boy, except for the eyes; they radiated with perception. The registration of reality on those would never lack for subtlety. But there was a hint of danger in them too; I wouldn't want them to turn on me. And I felt like my vague response had disappointed him somehow.
I took a breath. - You know, it's wild how we met again, man, I said. I mean, this is weird to say, but growing up, you were like this, unapproachable cool guy in the neighborhood. Like a rock star. You never hung out with us. I remember once, there was a fight or something out in the street, and you came out. When you saw me, you gave me this little nod, like you acknowledged me. It might sound bizarre, but that was huge for me. It was like, hey, the cool guy knows I exist.
Expressionless, he looked right into my eyes for a few seconds. - I have no memory of that whatsoever, he said.
I started laughing, and he started laughing, and then we were both laughing, together.
# # #
The next week Justin was nowhere to be found. Each day I went to work hoping he would come by the store. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday - nothing. It was maddening. Finally, late in the day on Friday, he showed up.
- Hey man, he said.
- Heyyyy! I said.
This was the third time I had seen him, and his face never seemed to change. He never looked tired, or pale from indoor work. - So, he said, did you see the new Citypaper yet?
- Not yet.
He had a copy in his hands, and spread it out. - Look at the new Velvet Lounge listings, he said. Two weeks from this Saturday.
I did. To my amazement, for the next's week bill, was the Still Forever, in tiny type, warming up for another band called The Relict. - Ahhhhh! I said. Jesus Fucking Christ.
- Ohhhh, I get it, I said. The Relict is a London-based band too, so they might be friends, and they're taking the Still Forever along for the ride as the warm-up.
He smiled. - Dude, he said. We're going.
- And as for this weekend, he said, do you want to go looking for the missing singles on Saturday?
- Absolutely. I'm working the 7-to-midnight shift that night, but before that, I'm totally free.
# # #
On Saturday, when I arrived at the record store we agreed to meet at, Justin was already there, talking to the woman behind the counter. She seemed young, a college student most likely, with long jet-black hair and delicate little-girl features. Her pale blue eyes were shielded behind aggressively ironic horned-rimmed glasses. She wore a tube top, and had an arresting figure, and was smiling at Justin, very broadly.
- Hey dude, Justin said. I haven't found any the Still Forever so far, so Brianna here is searching the computer for us.
- I'm intrigued, Brianna said. I've never heard of this band, and that's saying a lot. What were the three titles again?
- Perception's Passion, Jane Rain, and After Tram Rides, I said.
- Hmmm, she said. If I can't find them, I might be able to order it.
- Oh you know what, I don't think they have a U.S. distributor, I said. I work at Tower and...
- Corporate heinousity! she said, crossing her two index fingers. Never again shall that name be invoked in this store.
I gave a quick sorry. Justin made a face. - Let's stick to records, not politics, shall we? he said.
- Please trust in my powers, she said. I know many sites through which obscure vinyl singles may be had. Please continue to browse and come back in half an hour.
We browsed, then returned to her station. - No luck yet, she said, typing crisply. Damn, you guys are going to owe me a drink when I'm through with this.
- No doubt, Justin said. This is above and beyond the call.
- And I know just the drink, she said, as she continued to type. A crisp green apple martini. Or maybe a ...damn! This site doesn't have them either. I'm stumped.
- Oh well, Justin said. Many thanks for trying.
- Hey hey hey, she said. You don't get off the hook so easy. I'm calling in my chits right now. We close at 5 today, and at 5:05 I'm headed across the street, to The Reef, for a green apple martini. You two hereby have an open invitation to join me.
- And you're buying, she added, pointing to Justin and grinning wickedly.
After we left, Justin turned to me.
- So, are we going to meet our friend Brianna later? He gave me a she-was-pretty-funny-wasn't-she smirk, which I returned as best I could.
- It's up to you, I said. I've got to split at about 6:30 for work, but I can hang out for awhile.
- Why not? he said. But let's check a few more stores first.
- Sounds good.
We headed for Melody Records. The street activity that framed our walk - the start-and-stop cars, and the movements-behind-glass of the stores - suggested an audience. I savored it. It brought to mind a night a few months ago, when I was out drinking with some Tower people after work. A woman said, "Guys always say they don't know if another guy is good looking or not, but of course they do. That's why cute guys hang out with other cute guys."
At about five-thirty, we settled in at the Reef with our drinks, and Brianna. I had a soda, since I had to work that night. She started asking Justin a lot of questions, in a fawning journalist kind of way. But Justin kept including me in the conversation, mentioning our surprise re-acquaintance, how I turned him on to the Still Forever, etc.
After awhile Justin got up to get another round of drinks from the bar. The vibe turned awkward in his wake. Brianna readjusted her glasses, and gave me a wry smile, but neither of us spoke.
Finally she said, - Ralph.
- Ralph, I have a question for you, but I ask it a bit sheepishly.
- Please, I said. By all means, ask.
She leaned closer. She looked in my left eye, my right, my left. - Is Justin gay? she said, a trace of embarrassed color coming to her face. And my follow-up question would be - and please please please do not be offended by the implication of this - are you two together?
I smiled. I looked for Justin, who was still waiting at the bar. - Um, no, we're not together. And as far as he being gay, this may sound weird, but I really don't know him that well. This is really only the second time we've hung out.
- I see, she said, in a tone radiating dissatisfaction. Well, since I have already embarrassed myself beyond repair, let me ask you then. Are you gay?
I smiled again, and she followed. Then her eyes shot upward, to Justin, who held a coke in one hand and two beer bottles, grasped by their necks, in the other. - You go up next time for the drinks, Brianna, Justin said. It took me a fucking year to catch the bartender's eye. He'll notice you way before he'll notice me.
- Perhaps, she said. Perhaps. We talked through one more drink. Brianna's conversation started focusing less on Justin and more on herself. Then she drifted into a long story about an eccentric guy she worked with, repeatedly calling him a loser. - Is this guy a freak or what? she said as a means of summing up the story.
I was about to assent, out of cowardice, when Justin spoke up. - Maybe, he said. Or, maybe you're just a boring person. To a boring person, people who are colorful seem like freaks. But to an interesting person, they are interesting, because they give life texture. So it all depends on your perspective.
Brianna looked at him with her mouth open. - Oh. My. God. I cannot believe you would describe me as a boring person. I have never, ever, been so insulted. Look at what I'm wearing. Are these the clothes of a boring person, of an unimaginative person?
Her voice sounded confused - part vamp anger, part real anger.
- But those are just clothes, Justin said. That's not meaningful. That's just style. Whether you're boring or not has nothing to do with style. It has to do with your ideas.
He had on a troublemaker's smile.
- I think what Justin means is...
- Don't try to cover for him, she said to me.
- Of course, you are free to disagree with me, Justin said.
She looked at him. - I am speechless, she said. I am just speechless.
Justin turned to me and gave a quick wink, which I do not think she saw.
Not long after that exchange the conversation started to flag.
- Well, sad to say, I am going to have to push off soon. I have the late shift at Tower, and Saturday nights get busy there.
- Yeah, I should get going too. Have to move on to my own Saturday night plans.
She shot a look at Justin, but he said nothing, and after a few moments she said a quick goodbye and left. When we were saying our goodbyes, Justin waited until Brianna walked away, then turned to me.
- Listen, I didn't really mean to diss her, but the way she was putting down that guy she worked with...it was kind of annoying, y'know?
- Definitely, I said. How I admired him.
And then we had ten minutes of easy conversation, which felt like a great song, made more exciting by my knowing it would end too soon. And then I had to go to work.
# # #
The day before the Still Forever show, I started preparing. Before my two-to-ten shift at Tower, I got in my car and meandered through Rock Creek Park with my Still Forever tape in the cassette player.
I swerved through Broad Branch Road and turned on Beach Drive. Outside, the tree branches shook and Martin's falsetto seemed to rise above them: Somehow it made me think of Justin. I wondered what it would be like to be Justin, to be beautiful. I had thought about this before, with others, and usually felt envious, but while I was driving that day I felt a kind of affectionate detachment, a floating sympathy, as if I had stumbled upon a new set of emotions.
Maybe this was something no one talked about. Maybe there was a kind of beauty-influenced comradeship, separate from sexual attraction, and yet separate from traditional friendship. I crossed Stoneflake Bridge and turned off Beach Drive, onto Finsgrove Lane. The drive began to feel like a search. It all came together: Martin's voice, the swirl of the winding roads, the swaying tree branches like signaling fingers, the infinite shades of green, the idea of Justin, the clear crisp day, the sunlight flooding the leaves, and the anticipation of tomorrow's show - it was like the opposite of consciousness pollution, like something beautiful that could exist outside the eyes and ears, something intrinsically beautiful. Probably no one would believe that drive through Rock Creek Park was one of the happiest times of my life, but it was, and I tried to distill the sensation, to build up a reservoir of high spirits, that I could use to help get me through the boring work days, and through the uncompanioned nights.
# # #
It rained the night of the show. Perfect the Still Forever weather. Jane Rain.
I stepped inside the Velvet Lounge, paid the cover and threaded my way through the bodies. It was the type of place that drew a crowd most nights, even if no one knew the band. Men outnumbered women, vastly: frat boys in caps, just wanting to drink; hipsters with sideburns, looking for a scene; and the pop intelligentsia, intense-looking thirty-somethings in thrift-shop shirts and wire rims, hoping for a grand discovery. This, I thought, was their night.
I took a seat at the small bar in the back, ordered a beer. Waited. Justin appeared. I caught his eye. In a roomful of people, he walked toward me. - Hey, he said. Hope you haven't been waiting long.
- No, not at all, I said.
We went upstairs, to the music room. We took a place in the back and drank our drinks.
For awhile neither of us spoke.
Then I saw Martin, in the flesh. He walked onto the small stage and started setting up equipment. Lawrence and Grant were there too; I recognized them from the photos on the back of the record sleeves. Martin was shorter than I thought, and blonder (the photos had been grainy) but certainly, he could qualify as beautiful, the same approximate species as Justin. I watched him for awhile.
- Hey, did I tell you? Justin said to me. I'm moving back to New York.
A ripple-chill shot through me - quick, familiar. I should have known. - What? I said. - I'm moving back to New York. I gave my notice here, and I'm going to stay with a friend temporarily up there until I find my own place.
- In a few weeks. We want to get more serious about the band, and that's the place for that - there's tons more places to play, and industry people, all that shit.
I started throwing out words, hoping they made sense - what places his band might play, what he would do for a day job, etc. - Well, he said, I used to do some modeling up there, he said, and I might go back for that for a bit. I mean, it's poofy work and I don't really like it, but it pays really well for small hours, so it gives me time to play music...what?
Apparently my expression had changed. - What's the problem, dude? You don't think we can make it up there?
- Oh, no, I said, I'm sure you guys will do well. It's just that...I don't know. Sorry you've leaving D.C., man.
He turned his face to the ceiling and laughed. Then he grasped my shoulder with his hand. - You gotta come up and visit me there, dude. We'll have a blast. New York!
Justin, New York. Jesus. Maybe I could transfer to Tower Records Union Square. I was still trying to process all this when Martin and Lawrence picked up their instruments on the small stage. Grant took a seat behind the drums. A few people clapped.
- Yeah! someone shouted. Alright!
- Yes, good evening, Martin said. We're your friendly English cousins, the Still Forever. So very glad to be here.
Ever so slowly he started picking through a chord. I recognized the liquid notes of Nadja's Dream. The drums and bass started their shuffle, and Martin sang about a mind straying from a stretch of meadow to St. Paul's Square, and isolating light of waning summer days.
Martin made a weird face when he sang, like perpetual surprise; I think he was straining to open his throat to maximize the breathiness of his voice. There was modesty in his strum-sway and he barely looked at the crowd. The songs were locked in my head from private listening, so to have them enacted in public was like having my thoughts exposed, frightening and liberating both. Martin's words started to filter through the news that Justin just told me; it was overwhelming.
Still, the murmur of chatter that plagues most warm-up bands continued unabated. If anything, it got louder as the set went on, and by the third song (one of the three I didn't have, so I was listening as close as I could), I knew that most in the crowd did not share my enthusiasm. I wanted to yell at everyone - don't you realize what you're hearing? It was criminal.
But a small part of me liked saving the enchantment for myself.
- That's a sweet guitar he's playing, Justin said to me. An old Spanish Ibanez. A classic. But I think the mic's killing his voice.
I didn't respond.
They played all seven songs. The three I didn't have, especially Jane Rain, sounded even better than the ones I knew. And then they blew my mind at the end by covering Jimmy Webb, the last person I expected them to play, but Martin said before they played it that it was their tribute to their favorite American era they liked the most. Then they played it: Where the Universes Are.
After it was over, Justin and I went to the downstairs bar and started dissecting the music. He had a musician's knowledge for all the technical aspects, and I tried to extol the mysteries and subtle touches of the songs, the little turns and rises I had memorized.
I spotted Martin ordering a drink on the other end of the bar. I told Justin.
- Let's go say hi, Justin said.
We approached, Justin in the lead. - Hey man, Justin said. Nice set.
- Oh, yes, right, Martin said. Thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed it.
- Yeah, I said. Incredible.
Martin smiled at me - polite, but at the same time indicating I was not the object of his focus.
- Do you live here in DC? Martin asked Justin.
- Yeah, Justin said. I play too. Great guitar, by the way. An old Ibanez.
Martin seemed quite pleased by this, and they started a musician-only conversation, about fret-boards and string-tones and capos. I listened. Justin occasionally looked at me as he spoke, but Martin never.
Both were quite involved, especially Martin. - Well, you're a man of taste, Martin said. It's a beautiful piece of work, that guitar, and I am very pleased with it. Do you want to give it a go? Come on backstage for a few minutes, before the Relict goes on.
Justin glanced at me, but Martin kept his eyes fixed on him and extended the invitation no further.
- Have fun, dude, I said quickly. I'm gonna bolt. I've got an early shift tomorrow. I didn't give him a chance to finish his reply, but turned away quickly, and headed for the door.
Outside, the rain was dense and fragile. I wanted to get soaked. I walked toward the corner. Millions of droplets pinpricked the sidewalk. Across the street, under a streetlamp, a hanging sheet of fine silver needles waved in the air. One of the songs I just heard was fixed in my mind, Martin singing about the isolating light...
At the corner, I stopped. On the painted street, the stoplight had bled into the oscillating sheen of the puddles: a long red, like smeared lipstick; then a brief gold giving way to green. The chill from being drenched seeped through my skin, but the blurriness was pleasant and intimate, as if all delineation had been washed away and I could share the riches of private worlds.
The music commemorates this, I thought. I wanted to go back. So I did.
I reentered the club and headed straight for the bar, feeling chilled and self-conscious in my wet clothes. The Relict still hadn't come on yet.
I ordered a scotch and sipped it, enjoying the feel of the small glass in my hand. It was much less fun being alone here. I wished the Relict would start up soon, so I could have something else to focus on.
I looked up and heard Justin's voice behind me. - Dude! he said. You're back!
- Yeah well, I figured I should at least hear some of the Relict set. I heard they're pretty good.
The ridiculousness of it all hit me: me leaving abruptly without saying goodbye, getting soaked, sitting at the bar alone. The fiery warmth of embarrassment radiated through my wet clothes. Embarrassed at myself, for giving too much to music; embarrassed at my life, or lack thereof. I looked in his eyes to see if this registered - ridicule, or disdain, or pity.
I didn't find those things there.
- We're still hanging out backstage, he said. C'mon up.
- Ah, no man, it's cool. You guys should...
He shook his head. Then he grasped my arm, lightly, with one hand, and put the other hand on my back. He didn't remark about my wet clothes.
- Dude, he said. You're coming with me.
I let him guide me off the stool.
- C'mon, he said.
Do you like the narrator? Why or why not? Do you feel comfortable identifying with him? What do you think his greatest strengths are?
Do you think his sense of himself is realistic - that he sees himself the way the world sees him? Do you like Justin? Does he feel true to life to you? Have you ever acted like him, drawing someone else in when an invitation is meant only for you? What do you think motivates Justin?
Have you ever had a friend who actively included you in their activities even when those around him didn't seem interested? In the future, which of those dimensions, the acceptance or the indifference, did you build on when you anticipated further social interaction?
What inspired you to write this story? Music's power to enchant - that was the starting point. That led me to beauty's power to enchant (Justin), and since the narrator and Justin are both male, that led me to explore their relationship. The narrator, Ralph Stallo, appears in several short stories I have written in a collection entitled Ugliness: A Romantic History.
How true to life is it for you now? It's fiction, so I made up the storyline and the circumstances and the characters. But that was in the service of a deeper truth, or an attempt to get at deeper truth.
How did writing the story change your understanding of the situation and of yourself and of the dynamics of inclusion or exclusion? It helped me realize that the concepts of inclusion and exclusion play out in complicated ways. I felt that Justin's action to include the narrator at the end was a kind gesture, and part of my motivation for writing stories is to illuminate these small episodes in life that can actually be significant. But then I wondered, if this inclusion is important to Ralph, does this give too much power to Justin, in an unfair way? As is this power in part derived from Justin's physical appearance, and if so, is that healthy? Why are some given the power to make decisions to include or exclude? Conversely, if a reader is surprised that Justin includes Ralph, is that because Justin is being unfairly judged, because of his appearance? From this point, having written the piece, what freedoms might you give your characters or yourself that you weren't able to see before writing the story or poem? Now that Ralph has been through this experience, I'd like to see what's he learned - about the enchantment, beauty, inclusion and exclusion. I think he would have the power to surprise me in ways I couldn't predict. BTW, this is an excellent question in thinking about character development.
MARK TARALLO is a freelance journalist based in Washington,
D.C. His fiction and poetry have been published in Abbey, Asphodel, Angelface,
Beltway, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Red Mountain Review. He was recently
awarded a 2008-2009 Artist Fellowship Award in literature from the D.C.
Commission on Arts and Humanities. He won the 2007 Washington Writing Prize in
short fiction, and is a three-time Larry Neal Writing Award winner.