A bead of sweat ran down the indentation in the middle of my back, tickling my spine. My throat was hoarse and dry, and my voice was dying. But I couldn’t stop screaming. The words were wrenched from my lips the same way that they had been torn from my soul, scratched onto thin paper. The building smelled like smoke and there was the sticky, sweet scent of alcohol burning in my nose.
This was my addiction, my first love.
Music continued to save me, again and again. I would fall and the lyrics lifted me up again, and my heart would break and the tune would stitch me back up. Because of this drug, I was invincible.
In the smokey haze of the bar, a hand latched on to my ankle as I paced back and forth, keeping me pinned in place. I kept on screaming the words, over and over, as I looked down on the girl.
She had blue hair and black-colored contacts and there was a row of studs pierced in her eyebrow. Fingernails digging into the soft skin of my leg, she jumped up and down to the beat of the drums. The whites of her eyes flashed in the dark damp of the room, her lips painted deep red. She was the only one dancing with me. I wanted to body-surf, but there wasn’t a crowd. There was only she and I, my drummer keeping the beat for us both, the guitarist curled over his instrument.
That was what we lived for, back in the good old days. The thrill, the rush, the bass humming up through the floor and vibrating right in our very soul. The way we screamed until we lost our voices for the next week and bounced on the balls of our feet until it hurt. The music that we made caused us beautiful pain that we were happy to endure.
It never lasted. Not long enough.
I looped a few feet of black cables around my hand and knelt down to retrieve an abandoned guitar pick. Ugh. The stage was sticky with spilled drinks and vomit. It wasn’t the classiest place, but everyone has to start somewhere. Even The Beatles had to settle for bars and small, dirty clubs before they made music history.
But in all honesty, I would settle for begging for a few quarters in a beat-up guitar case on street corners before I stopped making music. Only someone who had truly been touched by the healing power of music would understand.
“Hey, kid.” The owner of the building beckoned me over with a crooked finger.
I hopped off the stage, wincing from the sharp fall. Clumsily, I walked over to the bar. My foot slid through a pile of green sludge and spread it all around on the ground. Oh God, what was that? I wiped the bottom of my shoe off on the carpet.
The manager eyes me suspiciously. “You aren’t drunk, are you, kid?”
I rubbed my eyes with a closed first. “It’s two in the morning, man. I’m effing tired, not drunk.”
He humphed, swiping a stained rag over the long, flat surface of the counter. “Tired of what? You don’t go to school, don’t got a job, you don’t do anything but hop around on that stage all night.”
“Actually, I have a class in four hours.”
“You’re in music school?” He scoffed.
I breathed out through my nose, a harsh rush of air. I should have been used to this, but the scorn in their eyes never stopped hurting. You see, kids from the mid south didn’t go to music school. We played instruments in band, sure, but only in middle school. Then football became the cool thing to do, and slowly we forgot about the cello and the trumpet. At the most we could still bang out “Chopsticks” on the old keyboard. Music was a hobby, never a lifestyle.
It was difficult to find people who loved music as much as I did in this town. Harder still to convince them join a band. Landing a gig was the easiest part of this business.
I had no doubts that music was for me, and I knew that I was good at it, and I knew that I could make it. It was only the rest of the world who doubted me.
Well. All the world save one, tiny, beautiful girl. But by then, she was long gone.
“Yes, music school,” I said through gritted teeth.
He shook his head at me, an amused smile on his lips. “Why are you wasting your time like that, kid? Don’t you love your mama at all? Save her the heartache and enroll in a business school, do something worthwhile.”
I squeezed my fist so tight around the guitar pick, it cut into my palm like a razor. “My mom is the one who taught me to play, sir.”
He laughed a little. “It’s your life, kid. You can only blame yourself when you waste it.”
And when I hit it big and when I hear my songs being played on the radio, when I’m the one getting awards for the words I write and the music I make--I’ll blame myself for that too.
“Well,” I said, “thanks for the advice.”
“You aren’t going to listen to me, are you?” he called after me as I walked away.
The lights dimmed even as the sun rose higher in the sky, orange and pink hues striped against a soft blue. And up ahead was another promising day of powerpoints, hand cramps, and struggling to understand trigonometry. Who said that college was a blast?
“You heading home?” Matt asked. He rapped his drumsticks against his knees, each giving a hollow thunk.
“I’m not sure. I might just park at the school and crash until my class starts.”
“There’s no rest for the weary.”
“Unless you collapse from exhaustion,” I said.
He laughed and stood up to hand me the beat-up Luna. “Such is the life of a musician. There’s a reason they call us starving artists.”
The guitar felt warm and familiar in my hands. I knew every scratch and dent in the old hunk of wood--and believe me, there were plenty of them. The Luna was my mother’s, a sweet sixteen present from her dad. Half the time, he didn’t recognize it. Grandpa was always asking were I got that “piece of garbage” and how much money I had wasted on it. On his better days--the rare times when he even remembered my name--he would just stare at it like he was remembering.
“You shouldn’t leave her in the car,” Matt said, as though he’d forgotten that I’d been playing longer than he had. “That poor guitar has been through enough.”
“The Texas heat hasn’t been kind to any of us.”
“How would you know?” he laughed. “You’ve always been as pale as a sheet of paper.”
“I am not physically capable of tanning, you know that.”
Matt jumped off the stage, landing with infinitely more grace than I. The dude weighed about ten pounds altogether. All he had were these knobbly little arm muscles from attacking his drum set.
“But seriously, man,” he said, clapping my shoulder, “you know I’m always here if you need anything, right? Like besides help on homework.” He slapped my back so hard that I had to take a step forward to keep my balance. “Night, Townes,” he called as he left the building that housed our minuscule dreams.
Luna and I went home shortly after that. I set her upright in the passenger’s seat and fastened the buckle around her thick, brown body. The pick rattled around inside of her the entire ride.
It looked to be another sleepless night, and normally I could catch a few hours before class started., but I smelled like smoke and booze. Right after a change of clothes, food was next on the agenda. My stomach began to growl as I carried the Luna up four flights of stairs to the apartment. Instead of hearing snores like I expected, I heard voices and saw the florescent flickers of color lighting up the living room.
“Grandpa.” i set Luna against the book case. “You’re supposed to be in bed. And is that Family Guy?”
I can’t really say that he was a man by then. He was barely human; his brain didn’t function ninety percent of the time. He was spikes of white hair, crazed like Einstein’s, and vacant brown eyes.
“It’s three in the morning. You need to sleep.” I wedged my hands beneath his arm and tugged him up. “C’mon.”
He struggled and wouldn’t let go of the edge of the couch. He weighed next to nothing. Just a wisp, really. I could have carried him to bed, but I had been up for twenty-two straight hours. My will-power was completely gone by that point.
“Fine.” I let go. he slumped back, eyes gluing back on the screen.
I peeked in Gran’s room to make sure that her trach tubes hadn’t come out during the night. I stuck the end of a half-eaten Pop Tart in my mouth and slung a random shirt over one shoulder. It stunk a little, but it was better than cigarettes.
“I’ll be back for lunch, okay?”
“Grandpa,” I repeated, louder, tapping his shoulder. “I’ll be back around noon--”
He slapped my hand away. “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my house?”
That was about all I could stand. I took the spare key, locked the door behind me, and prayed that he wouldn’t touch my guitar.