Chapter 6: The Past
Dwayne arrives at home both a little angry and a little scared. He is scared that he will look like a fool. Damn Alex! The boys would never have gone along unless Alex was behind this. Alex does this thing where he manipulates you into thinking you had an idea and it’s not until later that you realize it was Alex’s idea all along. Damn Alex! Dwayne can admit that it might be a good thought to change the sound a little. Every band can do some readjustment now and then, but to change the sound is hard right before beginning the tour. To change the sound at the same time that he is going to become the lead singer is ridiculous. It is too many changes all at once. Didn’t they know he could barely sing? He sings backup vocals or lead if Johnny was sick, but every night for eight weeks? He isn’t a singer. He is a songwriter and guitar player.
Changing the sound! He might be ok bringing in some of the older stuff. He should have known Alex would want that. Playing Hank and Cash isn’t going to be a problem. This fiddle stuff Alex was into these days, though, sounded to him a little like fiddle on steroids. Could Alex play that fast nights in a row? He was getting up there in age! Alex has taught Dwayne a little banjo over the last few years. He can play a little banjo, not as good as Alex, but maybe for a couple of instrumentals, he plays the banjo while Alex fiddles. That changes the sound. It could be fun, but they both better get their old fingers flying. Who else did he mention? Avett brothers, Lumineers? Americana – right? That is the implication of the bands Alex mentioned. Dwayne has to admit there is some logical sense in an Appalachian scholar playing Americana music, but the band has always been a country band. He has always been a traditional country songwriter. Nothing wrong with changing the sound to more Americana over time, might even be fun, but how could they do it this quickly without falling on their asses? How is he going to get up to speed or sound half decent on any of those songs? Did Alex suggest some Dead? Where did that come from? He couldn’t remember Alex ever listening to the Dead. Was Tom or Henry a closet Dead fan or was it just more trying to get the Americana sound more in the band? Hell- he didn’t know if he could sing those songs. If we’re going Americana didn’t Dylan really influence that sound? Would be easier to put a little Dylan into the song mix than the Dead. At least he knows Dylan. Maybe that isn’t a bad idea. Whoa – old man! Slow down a little. What the hell kind of sound is this country band going to produce this summer? Are we really going to become an Americana band? Damn, Dwayne loves the Western sounds. He doesn’t want to let go of that. Maybe an Americana/Western mix?
He needs to start thinking about his voice. Realistically, what is his range and what can he sing? He thinks about the names the boys had thrown out. Willie sings just fine. Dylan? Well, he could sing a little better than Dylan. Of course, if his own songs were as good as Dylan’s no one would care how he sounded. He suddenly thinks of the song he would have to sing every night: “The First Time.” There is no denying he had once written a masterpiece. The thought of singing it every damn night makes him a little sick to his stomach. He does not have any father’s pride towards his one masterpiece. Damn song ruined his life. How can he possibly sing it every damn night?
He pours himself a second Irish whiskey on the rocks and remembers the days when he would easily finish a bottle. He knows by the time he finishes a third drink, he will be opening up the drawer on his great grandmothers’ little night stand he had owned his whole life; looking through the few pictures he kept there. His great grandfather had made this nightstand by hand. Both great grandparents dead before he was born, it had been put in his room, “the baby’s room”, and then in his and his wife’s bedroom awaiting their first child, and then just carried with him to every transitory home since. He opens the drawer and take out the pictures; thinking that he should send the night stand to his older brother’s youngest son who might someday have a baby’s room to put it in.
On top of the pictures are his own head shots for publicity. Some are current, but most are from his Nashville years. There are a few snapshots of him younger with some big name stars. Hell, to think he had once jammed with The Hag. There are pictures of him and the country legend who had sang his one hit song.
Then there are the pictures of Carolyn. She had been his Nashville companion for five years. She was a beauty. Look at that beautiful amber hair! She was such a short little feisty thing. It was hard to believe a woman that short and of slight built could have such great natural tits. Man, those tits! He had never been with a woman since he hadn’t compared her tits to theirs. It was part of the reason he had become such a leg man in LA. LA is the land of fake tits. He thinks of how Carolyn’s under boob would smell like lavender sometimes when he lifted them up to kiss them or sometimes mixed with that musky smell of sweat. Carolyn was his last real relationship. He had been gone a lot touring. It was his job to be gone for weeks or months at a time. When he was at home, he was drunk and stoned, still playing, jamming, in the studio every chance he got. Plus he had been hired to write songs. He always was in a walking dream state when writing. It was his process. He started to see that look of loneliness and abandonment in her eyes. He came home one night and found Carolyn with another man. She begged forgiveness. She was lonely. He was often cold and aloof. He hated hearing the same refrain as he had heard from his wife and seeing that same look in her eyes. Of course, he forgave her. It was his fault, really. What could he expect from such a feisty, sexual woman if he left her alone and feeling insecure? He tried for a while to change his ways. He even brought her with him on shorter trips and wrote a song for her that the legend recorded, but it never became a hit. He was on the road for an extended trip the next time the rumors of another man came to him. Damn, he had to do his job, didn’t he? He never asked her to work. He paid the bills. She begged his forgiveness again. One night in a drunken rage he raised his hand to her. He dropped it without hitting her. After months of seeing the disappointment in her eyes get worse and worse, the look in her eyes when he raised his hand to her surprised him. Her eyes looked triumphant as if she had finally got him to show her the real man he was. Hell, maybe it was triumph because he was really paying attention to her. Is that what it took for him to pay that beautiful woman the attention she deserved - and like that? He left for California a week later. The look in the mirror at who he was becoming made him decide it was time to walk away from the life, the career, the girlfriend.
He doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Carolyn. She is not the one who he thinks of when he sings “The First Time.” At the bottom of the pictures is his favorite picture of Danielle. She had only let him call her Dani. He holds the picture taken on the day he proposed. Her blue eyes matches her dress; the sweetest blue dress. Seeing her in that dress always made him a little hard and he feels himself rising now. In the picture she is standing outside. The sky matches her eyes and her dress. He can appreciate the aesthetics of the scene captured by the old picture. The eyes, the dress, the sky all the same shade of blue, it seems to him, which makes the lips seem so red. He never had a prayer, he realizes, of resisting this girl. He had not thought ahead about proposing, but in that moment kissing that girl he thought he would never be happier and found himself going down on his knees. He realizes he had been right. He had never again been and probably never would be that happy as on that day with the sky of blue, her blue eyes, that blue dress and her sweet red lips.
They married the summer they turned eighteen; a week before he entered college. They were married in a small Baptist Church. The only honeymoon they could afford was one night at a bed and breakfast in a nearby town. They arrived in the early evening. Soon as they got to the room, she went to the restroom. It was summer and he took the pretty blue blanket off the bed, folded it neatly, put it away. It gave him something to do. It was not his first time, but he knew it was hers. It seemed like it was taking her a while. He got undressed, under the sheets, and waited. She walked out with an old towel she must have brought from home. Her mother had warned her she might bleed the first time and she didn’t want blood on the sheets. She didn’t want the owners of the bed and breakfast to be able to tell they had been sexual in the bed. She placed the towel carefully and laid in place on top of the towel. Every other woman he had ever been with had been older, experienced. Now, he was the experienced one with this sweet woman on top of her towel. Jesus, he loved her. She would bleed? He hadn’t realized. He cursed his length. Locker room jokes had always made him aware he was longer than the other boys. Well, he was taller. It was proportional. Besides he could tell by the laughter of the other boys that being long was good. Now, he wasn’t sure. He was so afraid he would hurt her. He tried to be gentle and tender. He still remembered how good he felt inside of her. He wanted to go deep, but he tried not to go in too far. He had to make himself go slow. He didn’t want to go too fast, too hard, too deep, but she felt so amazing. This woman is mine, he thought at one point. When she moaned, he stopped and looked at her. So beautiful with her eyes closed. He realized she was not moaning in pain. He went in a little deeper. He had never paid attention to how a woman looked when she came before. He had always been more concerned about what he was feeling. This first time with his wife he studied her face and her sounds as he sped up or slowed down. When she came, he came almost immediately afterwards. She was so beautiful. Hell, had he ever done anything more important in his life than given his wife an orgasm on their wedding night?
They were happy, but struggling those first few years. She waitressed at a little diner to support him their entire marriage as he went through college and then graduate school. They agreed to put off children until he graduated. She bought him that old blue guitar on their first anniversary. She told him to write her a song and he did in fifteen minutes. He didn’t remember much of it now except “Dani, I love your fanny”. He remembered her shaking it at him. By then she wanted it a little harder and liked it when he grabbed her ass. She always wanted to be underneath, though. He enjoys remembering those happy years.
It was when he was working on his dissertation that his interest in song writing became so strong. He had fallen in love with the hillbilly tunes and the sound of a dulcimer. Dani and him talked and worked out a plan. It was a fair plan. He would teach college full-time and he would spend summers writing songs. They would start a family. It was a good plan; fair to both of them.
The spring before he graduated, he found himself with his dissertation mostly written and time to write songs. He found he had a process for writing songs. The only way to really write a good song was first to escape for hours into an awake, but dreamy state. He would need to prepare to write by relaxing his mind and letting his brain explore other realities. Once he was writing, he wanted to write for hours because it was hard to prepare to write again. It took a while to get into that dreamy state. Once there he didn’t want to leave. Writing songs was different than writing academically. He didn’t know if it was the way other song writers wrote, but it was the only way that seemed to work for him. He wasn’t truthful with Dani. She wouldn’t have understood. He told her his dissertation needed rewriting and then he escaped away from her to write his songs. He had to distance himself from the real world so he could concentrate on the fantasy world where he found his inspiration. He often found himself simply staring and smiling at the stories he was telling himself.
He remembers the day Dani accused him of cheating on her. He hated the look in her eyes of loneliness and abandonment. Never, he told her, and it was true. What kind of man did she take him for?! He would never cheat on her. He was insulted she would think of that.
Then, he went back to his fantasy world. Was it wrong if he fantasized of another first time? He didn’t fantasize about being with a virgin. The first time with Dani was so special for so many different reasons. He would never imagine another first time quite like that. Wouldn’t want to think or imagine a first time like that with another woman. Still, it was sad to think that, at not yet thirty, he would never again have a first time with another woman. What would it be like to have a first time with a woman about his same age now, experienced, and in love with him? How would it be different than it was with Dani? He imagined a woman, experienced, who loved him and who was his intellectual equal. He started thinking about the romance that would lead to the first time. In his mind, she was someone with whom he would walk in the woods and easy laughter would flow from her. She was as attracted to him by his intelligence as by his looks as he was to her. They had great conversations about history and literature. He didn’t have to be careful about his choice of words in fear she wouldn’t understand. He didn’t have to change his vocabulary to be with her. He thought about the conversations, walks and stolen looks for hours before he imagined the first sexual act; even the first kiss. The thought came to him that he would like to believe in a soulmate. What if there was one true soul he was meant to be with?
He knew he was being unfair to Dani with these thoughts. She had given her youth to put him through school. All of her friends had already started having kids. She didn’t have any hobbies. She didn’t care about a career. Her entire world was him. He hated the look in her eyes when he would return from long hours wandering the woods and tell her he had been in the library. He would pick up his guitar and escape into his music while she prepared dinner and got ready for bed. Sometimes he wouldn’t go to bed with her. He would stay in the living room picking on the guitar. Sometimes he would sleep on the couch so he didn’t wake her. He hated the look in her eyes.
Still, it seemed unfair. If he was never going to leave her and he had no intention of leaving her; if he was never going to cheat on her and he knew deep within himself he could never cheat on her; was this imaginary first time with a soulmate so bad? If it was all just imaginary with an imaginary woman and the hours he spent in fantasy about the romance was just so he could imagine what it felt like to have a first time with a soulmate and it all ended in a few good songs, why was it so wrong? It was just his writing process. It was, after all, a process that worked. He wrote “The First Time.” He realized how good it was. It was actually a shock to have written something that good. Without telling Dani, he made a demo and sent it off to Nashville.
Once the demo was sent off, he returned to everyday reality and preparing for graduation. Dani was still always so angry. He tried to joke with her. He told her lots of couples go through this during dissertation time. He introduced her to a spouse of a friend who was going to law school; so she would see it was just the end of graduate school they were going through. He told her not to worry so much. He would graduate and everything would change. She said he was so cold, so aloof, never wanted to talk to her anymore. He received a teaching offer from a university and they celebrated. She seemed a little happier.
Two weeks before graduation a representative from the country legend called. The country legend actually came to his home –all that way to meet him. The man was going to record his song, but wanted him to be in his band and the contract would include additional payments for additional songs he would write. Damn, this was the dream. Didn’t she understand that? He wanted her to come with him. He wasn’t leaving her. They would start a family in a year or two once they were settled in Nashville. She was still young. They would have children. He had never seen her so angry. Damn, he wasn’t leaving her. He could support her now. She wouldn’t have to work. It was just a change of plans.
She said he had already left in his mind. She said again that he was cold and distant. She didn’t want to be so far from family. She couldn’t keep waiting to have kids. What if they waited so long and she couldn’t get pregnant? She begged with him to take the job at the university and forget about Nashville. When he said he was going to Nashville soon as he graduated, she packed her bag and left. She didn’t even come to the graduation ceremony after all that time putting him through school.
Dwayne realizes he has dropped the snapshot. He picks it up and puts it back carefully at the bottom of the pictures. He looks at the clock. He had been lost in his past for a couple of hours. He wishes he could go back now and make another decision. He thinks of the irony of it all. He now teaches college, but not in a four year university. If he had kept with the plan, he would have had tenure by now. The children he never had would be grown. This nightstand would have gone to a baby’s room in his house. In the end, he had prioritized fame over the woman who had prioritized him over her youth. Then, he ended up walking away from the life and the fame which was destroying him. Now he is living a lesser version of the life he would have had if he stayed with her. Teaching community college, writing in the summer, but without his sweet Dani- no children, no love in his life. Why had he really made the choice? Was he hoping to meet a soulmate? Did he really make the choice that made her leave because he wanted another first time?
Carolyn hadn’t been his soulmate. He tries to remember their first time. He remembers her tits, but not the first time. How could he not remember their first time? He did believe he had tried with Carolyn. He had wanted it to work. Cold and distant, she had called him. Maybe that is just who he was. Maybe that is just who he is.
There has been a lot of first times and only times with a lot of women since then. If that’s what he wanted, he got it and then some. None of them had equaled the first time with Dani. None of them meant a damn thing. None had been a soulmate. None had been the woman he had dreamed of when he wrote the song.
Dwayne goes to his closet and reaches towards the back for the one guitar case he keeps there. He had never gotten rid of the old blue guitar. How the hell will he ever sing the lyrics to that damn song every night? He thinks, if I hadn’t written that song. Every time he sings it he sees the look in Dani’s eyes; her look of abandonment and loneliness. He had written a great song for an imaginary woman which had made him famous and had broken his wive's heart. He tunes the guitar.
The country legend sung this song with a melodic deep voice. It is such a romantic classic. Dwayne always imagined it a little twangy, a little more nasal, not quite so bass, a little faster tempo in the second half. He can sing it the way he wrote it, but not the way it was arranged for the legend. Really it is a song about a man who finds it hard to say I love you. It is a song about a man who wants his woman to know how he feels without telling her. It is a song about a man who finds it hard to express his emotions. In that way it is a song about him as much as about any woman. As he starts to sing the song he realizes how deeply a man who wrote this song for a real woman would have cared for her. It is a beautiful, if fanciful, love song. For the first time in decades he tries to return in his brain to the woman he had imagined. Can you imagine meeting a woman you believe you had loved in a past life? What would it be like to have a first time with a woman you believed you were destined to love? He plays and sings and thinks to himself that he can do this, but, if he is going to sing this every night, he will need to believe this type of thing is possible. He isn’t sure if he believes anymore. It seems rather like a myth to him, but it is a beautiful myth – this thought of a soulmate. He wants to believe that such a thing is possible. At least he knows he couldn’t hurt his ex by singing this song now. He knows that she remarried and she has a child who would be grown by now. Her child attended school with his youngest nephew. She is ok, he thinks, probably better off all these years without him. It is him that screwed up and he is the one alone. He is a song writer and this is his legendary song. He needs to find some way to let go of the regret and be able to sing this song every night. He won’t hurt anybody now if he goes in his brain to imagine the woman he had imagined when he wrote it. He can’t quite remember what she looked like. He thinks about the woman he has been dreaming about in his dreams surrounded by the world of blue. That will do. He thinks that he could just think about her each night when he sings this song. Maybe he can think of this woman and pretend that she is his soulmate. Maybe, if he can begin to believe in this myth of a soulmate again, this song can be about hope instead of regret. At least, maybe he will be able to sing it without hating himself.