Forty-two years ago, I was in love.
I live in Brooklyn and occasionally publish book and music reviews for magazines and blogs, but I primarily just blog these days. I have a fine reputation and decent checking accounts, but I survive.
Compared to my old buddies, I might as well have been shooting smack and hustling change at the Port Authority bus terminal. It does not kill you, but it all manages to strip flesh from you slowly, one strip at a time and infrequently, depending on how I feel. I wonder if I can stand it without jumping in front of the subway train, but I manage.
I worked for a weekly newspaper in Texas for several years, snuck into a couple of New York music monthlies. Emboldened, I made my move up here.
After all these years, I still spin in the gravel.
I am working on a novel about this long-dead relationship. I average two sentences a week. One moves slowly when burdened with a sundered heart. I will get the first draft finished by the time I turn 60.
For some reason, I cannot break out of this truck. Each session with this book has precluded all other fictional activities. Sure, I wrote some decent stories, but I wanted this novel out of the way first, so I remain a third-rate freelancer
While riding on the F train home from a freelance copy-editing shift on a Sunday afternoon, it finally struck me. I was reading the New York Times book review and came across the assessment of a novel by my rival in Texas.
Something in my mind snapped.
I cannot really explain how it happened. All I knew was that everything went blank, and I faded out. Then, as I grasped the pole before me, I knew I was getting a second chance at something. I remembered smiling.
I looked out the shuttle bus window and felt like my heart had jumped out of my throat. I was back all right, just like in the movies. It may be a second chance at a beautiful life, but unfortunately, no guardian angel was by my side. I was on my own for this drama.
I pulled the cord and got off at Guadalupe and 24th Street. Judging by the weather, I knew it was early October—the time from when we met. Autumn in Texas is so short that you miss it if you do not pay attention, and I knew from the breeze that this was the first north of the season rolling in. The massive cold fronts are coming down from the Canadian prairies, and with them, the temperature suddenly drops—without warning. I unzipped my black leather jacket open, anyway. The cold is never wrong, and the wind is not too harsh.
I reached into my pocket to light a cigarette, attempting to figure things out. The mural on the wall of the varsity theater was still unfinished. Reynolds Penland still existed, and from looking down the street, I could spot Swenson’s ice cream parlor sign. I worked there once.
I close my eyes and blink out all thoughts in my mind. When I opened them, nothing had changed; I could not believe people still wore flares in 1979. I didn’t rub my chin and look at my clothes. I’m not seventeen in this place, which certainly threw a complication into this affair.
Suddenly, it came to me that I had been illuminated. I was hoping for a more complicated Thomas, for some waggish gadfly to help me along in this situation, or at least receive some realization that this was a sick fantasy stemming from reading the book review. But, sorry, I was out on my own and without a real plan in my head.
I checked my wallet, and all the bills were recent. So much for that and the credit cards I had been useless. But then, I realized my way out.
At the pinball parlor, I jammed every single into the change machine. I wound up with $15 in quarters, which is better than nothing. I figured, just in case, I would change the twenty at a bar tonight. The bartender would never look at the series number in the darkness.
I cashed the quarters in at the bank down the street without fuss. This was a strange feeling, scraping for change again, just as I did when I was seventeen. After leaving the bank, I walked up Lavaca Street toward Guadalupe, feeling the breeze lift me with each step.
The situation I got myself thrown into required a lot of thinking. First, I went into the Cuban deli that would close in two years for a cup of coffee. Sitting in the booth, I figured out a reasonable facsimile of a plan and mulled over my options. Along with the singles and the spare change from my coffee, I had $200 in the twenties from the last check I cashed, though with the inaccurate series numbers, worthless credit cards, and a weird sense of knowing everything yet truly knowing nothing.
I knew that I had to find a younger version of myself. How I was going to approach myself was the question. Somehow, I will sell myself as a long-lost brother or cousin. No, I would not fall for it, and it would’ve been disastrous if I had met myself. I was never that stupid.
Whatever I had to do, I knew I had to break them up initially, and now was a perfect time. So I paid for the coffee across the street and headed down 24th to Inner Sanctum Records, the store I used to hang out at and where we first met.
I flipped my leather jacket lapels when I passed Shannon and me in the atrium. I recognized the shirt before I saw his face. Today was our first date, and I knew they were going to the Clash that evening, skipping school to hang out before Shannon got dressed.
I entered the record store, bought the remaining ticket for The Clash, and walked out. I thought about flipping through the stacks of albums, but in my mood, I felt like I did not want to wax nostalgic, a concept ironic in these circumstances. It was tempting, however. I figured PIL would not bring that copy of the metal box back with me to my time with no cash. Damn.
At least I will get to see the Clash again. Remember the band? Rock n roll’s last great hope, remembering the critics at the time–the only band that matters, they wrote.
I found them painfully pretentious. As for myself, I will take Johnny Thunders, the Buzzcocks, and even The Adverts. But maybe a second crack at seeing them perform again will change my mind. Then again, perhaps not.
I watched them pass by me as I went outside. I was such a geek and so damn thin. I looked like I ate out of garbage cans. No wonder I wasn’t getting laid back then. Shannon did not look much better. Coke bottle glasses and an oversized pair of overalls. If a couple deserved each other back then, we or they. In this situation, I am often confused.
I decided to bide my time and catch my younger self later at the concert. So, I began to walk down Guadalupe Street. Thinking about them or us. I had met Shannon through the Ratman, someone I had met a few weeks before and a classmate of hers at her high school. He gave me her number. I recalled nervously calling her up that night. What was it I was tossing in my hand? Oh yes, a can of Georgia peaches. I hate peaches. In retrospect, this was not a good omen.
I remember meeting Shannon in the stairway behind the record store. No matter her looks, I instantly fell in love with her.
I walked by the Gulf station, where I worked briefly two years later. I sauntered over to the Coke machine and got a thirty-five-cent Dr. Pepper. Even in 1979, it was about $.15 below the price elsewhere, so I could not resist because it was the old taste—they still used cane sugar in those days. The first taste as the soda entered my mouth took me back to less complicated times at the moment when complications ruled my life. Also, I bought two packs of Marlboros inside for .55 each. I might as well play tourist and take advantage.
This was fantastic. I wish I could figure out how to spend two hundred bucks in what was essentially future tender. I bit my lip at the second thought. It would be a lousy plot for some late-night movie, or as if my life was nothing more than a loosely threaded-together series of plot complications. Also, if I return to my time, I would be broke.
It was a sad situation to be clinging to second chances. Too narrow are the parameters of action. Empowered, though powerless, I felt insecure about the entire situation. Something about it did not sit right with me. I walked into Half-Price Books and wandered along with the musty stacks. I found a few things were fine, walked upstairs, and pitched the books out the window.
Jesus, this was so easy, just like the old days. I walked into the alley, collected the volumes beside the dumpster, and walked away, carrying my books down Lavaca Street and heading to the bridge over Town Lake. Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the sun, and it was only 6:30. Another hour or so to kill before the doors opened for the concert.
I walked around, thinking about what had happened on this day. But first, I got a ride from my mother.
I waited for her for over an hour, fidgeting madly in front of the stage. My heart was pounding, and I constantly wanted to go to the bathroom. I don’t believe I was ever excited about anything like those few minutes at the concert hall while waiting for Shannon.
Then, I realized that my memory was incorrect or the situation had already changed. Shannon and I were together before the Clash concert. I did get a ride from Mom, not Clay, and I met Shannon at the door before the opening act, Joe Ely took the stage. However, I had just passed them at the record store, but I knew it was that day.
I looked at my watch again to check the date. It was the day of the concert.
I do not know why, but today is the correct day. The circumstances were becoming all very strange, and the incongruities disturbed me to no end.
A few years before they sandblasted the façade, I had forgotten what a dreary building this was. Better, I forgot what a gloomy city Austin was at the time. The capital was nothing more than an ersatz Greek nesting place for pigeons. I walked by, thinking about all the times I would hang out on the balcony, throwing cigarette butts at unsuspecting tourists and legislators in session down on the floor below. I never got caught. I walked down Congress Avenue and entered Aaron’s, a bookstore with old paperbacks and rotting record albums as dull as I remembered it, but it gave me time to kill. It was no wonder Aaron’s went out of business several years later.
I managed to spend an hour there, and then I crossed the bridge and turned the right corner to Barton Springs Road. The air hangar that was the Armadillo World Headquarters was on the next corner.
I was surprised by my lack of sentimentality; as much of a history buff, I have little use for the good details in the core of my life. This comes from being a nascent Marxist, I guess. I have no idealistic attitude. So, sentimentality leaves a cold spot on my heart. It’s even applied to Shannon, though I felt a bit different.
I handed my ticket to the biker working the booth, and I headed straight for the bar. It was dark enough for me to dare to spend one of the twenties, so I bought a Shiner Beer, and afterward, I felt that maybe I could get caught. Perhaps the bartender would look to see the series number on the note. The whole situation worried the hell out of me. But I saw the crowd at the bar and felt comfortable that I would get away with this.
I leaned back and debated going to the front to see if I had arrived. Looked at my watch before deciding to wait until 8:30. I had plenty of time.
People were streaming in, and I saw a few I knew. Roger Paul walked by. I hesitated. Should I warn him that he would die in an awful accident at the 7-Eleven on Lamar Boulevard? I smirked instead. I love having this kind of power.
David McCall came in with Sharon Walker. The last time I saw Dave, he was fried out and bumming spare change on the Drag. Sharon ended up hanging around with skate punks.
Clay and I arrived. Perhaps my mother did not drive me to the Armadillo, I thought. That was disconcerting. My teenage memory was turning out to be rather piss-poor. But as I watched them, I had an idea.
When they paused by the pool table, I walked over and put a quarter on it.
“You up for a game, boys?”
Clay touched my teenage shoulder and stepped back as he saw me. However, I felt confident that my hairstyle, the goatee, and horned-rim glasses would not be recognized. Maybe it was my voice. Adult, though still me. Perhaps there was a sense of recognition, but that boy was nervous. Strangers don’t just put the quarter on the pool table and ask if you want to play a game.
“Sure,” he said.
I pushed the cue ball across the table and picked a warped stick. I watched that petite teenager like another one and stepped slowly back. I glanced at Clay, pointing to myself, saying he felt like getting out of this. Then, I saw myself taking nervous glances toward the front door. I saw my chance.
“I want to play you,” I said, pointing at myself.
“I’ll rack,” said Clay. I reached down, and I put the quarter in the slot. The relationship between Clay and me constantly pushed me to take chances, minor instead of significant. Still, it reached a totality that comprised a large part of my personality as time passed. Finally, I put my head down, confident enough to crack an unseen smile.
We played the game of losers, eight balls. At the break, I popped the three in. I had every intention of beating myself, defeating this boy, and doing it as slowly as possible.
Before my next shot, I looked at my watch and estimated I had 15 minutes to drive this game out before Shannon arrived. And I intended to make him play again. I knew myself from the time, understanding that I would not give up. Instead, I would try to play this punk rocker again.
In the process, I would then throw up every bit of this small talk I could get those two boys to fall for, and knowing me, he would lap the whole monologue up like vomit. Finally, I would have those two boys so entranced by my intellectual bullshit that though Shannon would not be forgotten, she would at least feel like she was being stood up. I certainly knew Shannon; by the time I would break away, she would be in the front seat of her ugly white Plymouth, crying over this scumbag, standing her up. Shannon was mercurial enough to cut the boy off. She would find someone else soon enough, just now, not later, when I had most needed her.
It would be over. I knew that boy would be depressed for a while, but he would get over it. I would be saved.
I shot an excellent double bank and sized up an easy way to choke on the next shot. Her eyes were burning the back of my head, watching me when I carefully booted the seven just slightly off the corner pocket.
“Shit,” I said. “I hit it too hard.”
I watch the boy lean over, slipping this stick over the knuckles to aim. I saw that my hands were shaking. I knew the boy did not have a bean’s worth of a chance. But, within a minute, he knocked four in a row, each shot as accurate and clean as I had never done except on rare occasions when I was angry. That boy was furious.
I closed my eyes. My memory of myself was more inaccurate than I had assumed.
The game was over in less than ten minutes. I fell behind after that streak and spent the remainder of the match grasping at straws. That was really throwing off the intensity of that teenager. When my teenage self knocked the nine-ball in the left corner with English, he threw the cue stick on the table, and he and Clay walked away with a thank you before I could ask if they wanted another game.
I put the stick back on the rack and saw they had disappeared into the crowd. Suddenly, I flinched. I saw Shannon, and I walked toward the stage. I had failed.
I thought about it. I figured, what the hell? Why should I change anything? Even so, I nevertheless made a mild interference. My seventeen-year-old self had just won his first pool game right before Clay, an outstanding player who eventually became a professional competitor.
Perhaps I added just a tiny mark of confidence to my younger self; maybe this was enough to put me over the top, or I became even more unbearably arrogant. I do not know. I guess I will find out soon.
I returned to the bar and got another Shiner. I turned and watched in amazement as Shannon and I walked past me as the Clash came onto the stage. This was not supposed to happen. However, I leaned back on my stool and enjoyed another sip of beer as Joe Strummer struck out the first cords to London Calling.
Afterward, I went out to the parking lot. Shannon’s white Plymouth was gone. I was not about to guess how the evening for them turned out, but I figured I would not know if that was where I was eventually returning until I got back on the F train.
I sat down on the curb and lit another cigarette. I closed my eyes and pulled my jacket close. When I opened them, I was back in Brooklyn, sitting in my chair before my typewriter.
I am reading these words on the page that I have typed. A sense of unreality washed over me.
Things looked the same, but there were subtle differences. I had lived alone, but I realized this was no longer the case, judging by what I saw.
I gave him just a little bit too much confidence, didn’t I? However, I felt a sense of foreboding. It is never wise to dip a finger into the streams of time.
Now, I have to face those consequences. I rise from my chair and walk into the bedroom. As I look down at the empty bed, I feel my soul descend as fresh memories of the previous decades sweep aside to replace the events of my life that had been there before.
I feel overwhelmed by this change when I press my palm against the bedding. Yes, while circumstances are different, I have remained the same. I forget that the final epiphany is erased when the thought is completed.
Thoughts of suicide begin to cross my mind, lingering. For a moment, I do not understand why I feel this way until the reason becomes clear, striking with unyielding brutality the moment as I forget everything, including Brooklyn.
Mike Lee is a writer and editor in New York City. Work published and upcoming in several journalist and anthologies. A short story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon.
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