There are few men who can live up to your first big high school crush. Unless, they are in fact the same crush ten years later. He had shoulder length shaggy brown hair, perfect shoulders, a thrift store chic look, he rolled his own goddamn cigarettes. I hated smokers! It was so hot. Now when boys play the drums in high school they are called percussionists, when men play the drums and are unemployed, they are called drummers.
What do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend?
What you say to a drummer in a three piece suit?
Will the defendant please rise?
When Mike August and I reconnected ten years after high school in that place of all possibility and romance (Facebook) I felt I was living in a dream. My crush was made of ancient teenage yearnings, silent communication, longing glances across the 9th grade band room from my flute section to his percussionist section. He was just like my favorite literary bad boy, Heathcliff. Dark, silent, full of a hidden depth of passion only I could see. I never got up the nerve to declare my love, I pined, as high school flutist are prone to do.
But here he was in my dining room, we were 28 now. And so, we were aggressively optimistic.
After he left, I called up my best friend from high school, we still mutually wondered on the whereabouts of the elusive Mike August.
Oh my god, Mike August was just at my house. Yes, I made him dinner. Yes, he ate it! Mike August kissed me! I know! Mike August!
I was 16 again, hardly capable of thinking more than a minute down the road. Oh, and he went by Mikey Lightning now.
I don’t go for stereotypes. I was a teacher after all and taught British literature to high schoolers in Chicago Public Schools. Black suiting and hair in a bun was my specialty. “You really got that whole hot librarian thing going on”, Mikey Lightning laughed. Critical thinking and a lot of Jane Austen told me, this could work, this could totally work. My love could like for sure inspire him to the greatness he clearly has just bubbling below the surface or liking down a little deeper maybe. I mean, he’s not homeless. He just stays at my apartment. A lot. All the time.
I looked at him and the stray cat I had at that time, napping on my bed; all curled up together. I felt an equal urge to bathe them both.
“So where is your home exactly?” I asked
He rolled over onto the cat, “The road is my home.”
He told me to “be cool”, “chill out”, and leave my piles of grading behind for late night shows in bars and clubs when he was playing in town. Even in 2009 Chicago Public Schools was already falling apart and I feared daily and deeply that my job would disappear at any moment. Another part of me secretly fantasized about the job’s demise, I loved hanging out with the “artists” and pretending like what I made and thought mattered, not some 16 year olds plagiarized essay on Macbeth. And lesson plans on dangling modifiers made me want to leave myself dangling.
Be cool, I can totally be cool. It was always made easier with a leather jacket lying around my apartment and a free ticket to every show. I went out to bars and hung out with the musicians. They were tall and loud, vegan and bohemian, the lead singer didn’t wear a bra. And she didn’t need to.
Then something happened that made me lose any ounce of cool I had. I got laid off. Like any burn, whether in career or love, I played the “Yeah, well I didn’t like you anyways” card. “Those who can’t do, teach. I’m going to do”.
I’m an artist. I should run away, join the circus, date a drummer…
Wait! I was dating a drummer! I had almost forgotten as he was on tour so much I hardly ever saw him the past few months. But, just like in high school, when a passed note would suffice for love, our bond had appeared to endure. I was still considered to be within the sacred circle of “band wives and girlfriends”. Only a man’s whims away from non-existence.
Mikey Lightning’s next gig was in NYC and I bought the plane ticket there. NYC like LA or Las Vegas, holds the possibility of greatness and discovery. I had numerous months of school left with the kids all asking me “What are you going to do, Ms. Howe?” because the Napoleonic principal had announced the layoffs school wide. Every day was like playing a part, a part Meryl Streep would revel in, quiet and calculated with the promise of epic and poetic breakdown.
Yeah, I got laid off, but Mikey Lightening, my drummer boyfriend, is bringing me to NYC. The road was my home now.
Then, after weeks of fantasizing that this trip would reassemble all of my woes, that love, love would keep us together, the weekend was upon me. Days away from what I considered the only escape from the hell of my doomed life, a blizzard hit the East coast that prompted newscasters to report “If you’re planning on traveling east any time soon, don’t” The tiny, aggressive icons of snow and lightning bolts mocked my plans of escape.
I am going east. I am going to NYC. The road is my goddamned home.
That’s when I stopped watching the news, and started bargaining with the Universe.
Universe, friend, these past few months have been pretty bad, would you not agree? But biblical sized blizzards that shut down the city that never sleeps? Stop being so fucking cleaver. Be reasonable, bitch. I’m going.
And I proceeded to ignore all signs of imminent defeat and scheduled to meet Mikey Lightning in New York City. I had my poor mother drop me off at the airport, she went along with the farce and parked in the waiting lot for me as she was sure I would return an hour later, head hung low. I was raised to play it safe, and as much as my parents love me, when I fail, it does fit nicely into their suburban ideas about dating drummers and going to NYC during blizzards.
Walking confidently through the airport with my weekender bag (I had packed light, like an artist), I ignored the tired bodies of stranded travelers that littered the long halls of O’Hare. I bought a trashy magazine, walked right up to that gate, and popped a pre-flight Xanax with a determined gulp.
My flight was the last to leave O’Hare and only one of a handful to land at LaGuardia that day, finding some miraculous thread of calm through the storm.
I walked out of the ghost town LaGuardia, into a waiting cab that took me directly and swiftly, through eerily empty snow piled Manhattan streets, to Mikey Lightning. He stood, leather clad and smoking, on the curb in Brooklyn, like an ink blot test against the dirty snow bank that piled three feet over his shaggy head.
We ran up the twelve flights of black wrought iron stairs, up and up and up; to the warm apartment we rented from the Hare Krishna’s. A young man with a shaved head in a soft orange robe gave us our tasseled key.
And for two days I pretended to be something I was not, a carefree artist, a lover, a fan of hipster folk music, unafraid of what the future held.
One of the nights we were in DUMBO, down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, at a club the size of a Chicago closet. The music was too loud for me, the reality of my trip back to Chicago a bit too clear, too sad, the weariness of the last few months had caught up. I stepped out onto the slushy cobblestone street, alone, in an unknown place. There were cavernous tunnels lit and steaming like a scene from Tim Burton’s Batman and the quivering bridge loomed ominously away from the borough into the heart of the cold, cold city.
I looked back into the bar, at the traveling gypsies, like Scrooge contemplating what his life could have been like. I had gotten so many things that I thought I wanted, the job in teaching, the boy from high school, the flight to New York City.
It all left me cold, and in an attempt not to cry I remembered a joke about teachers.
What do you call a teacher without students?
I laughed, forgetting the slush creeping into my boots and allowing myself to revel in the sweet cold misery. For a moment, I almost felt like the road was my home.