Music helps memories stick. Once in a while I’ll hear a song or pick up a whiff of something familiar that takes me back to a memory so vivid it’s. They visit from a very specific time and place, pick me up out of a mundane task — driving a daily route or a boring meeting — and take me back to relive vivid moments, locked behind doors and still intact, their settings, people, emotions still vibrant. It’s like walking into a room at Monticello where nothing has changed for decades. Thomas Jefferson’s bed still looks too small, the windows too big and that duplicating writing instrument impossible to use. The docents repeat the same script, and there’s a slightly eerie feeling of being an anachronistic voyeur.
“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” puts me in my mother’s pickup truck when I was two, driving across Houston freeways one night when it was raining and the AM station played the hit song BJ Thomas, who grew up, I would later find out, somewhere near our neighborhood. I had been at my grandparents, where it was intended I spend the night. But I wanted to be home with my mother, someone, it seemed, I seldom knew. So I cried until my grandfather cursed at my grandmother and told her to call my mother to come get me, in the middle of the night, twenty miles away, during a Houston thunderstorm. She did, and we rode in the truck, just the two of us and the song. We sang and together and I traced raindrops as the wind blew them across my window. My mother twitched her double-jointed thumbs at ten and two on the steering wheel.
I’m not always transported to childhood, and memories sometimes evoke complex feelings I haven’t completely untangled yet.
The Guns N’ Roses song, “Sweet Child o Mine,” leaves me feeling confused, intimidated and naive, and there’s always this blonde in the picture.
The first time I remember hearing the song was one afternoon in 1988, in an apartment in College Station, Texas, my sophomore year at Texas A&M. I don’t know whose apartment it was, and I knew only one or two of the ten or so people there. It was a crowd I had heard about, but had not been part of. The kids had all gone to high school together, a larger school than mine but only a few miles away and in the same city. The one guy I knew, Scott, had been a bag boy with me at the Brookshire Bros. grocery store in the Gaslight Shopping Center. That had been almost four years earlier, when we were 16. Scott was a big guy with short red hair. He played football, and, partly because of football and partly because I heard his dad got him the job, I expected him to be a jerk, looking down on me, a lowly, skinny, awkward basketball player from the country school. He turned out to be the nicest guy, an earnest, hard worker who was pretty smart and didn’t take shit off anybody.
I bumped into Scott in the A&M library early in the semester and he asked me to play flag football with him and other guys from his high school team, a team that had gone deep in the state playoffs, a team whose starting left tackle, at six-eight, two-eighty, was now starting for A&M. The high school’s starting quarterback was also at A&M, and he quarterbacked the flag football team. There was another guy on the team I knew. He had transferred from my country school to the bigger city school in ninth grade because his father thought his son possessed superior athleticism. This guy was every bit the jerk I thought Scott would be. Another guy I remember was tall and skinny. He had longish hair, seemed to be high and walked stooped over, like he was constantly taking a hit from a joint and didn’t want anyone to see.
I showed up for the first practice, introduced myself and tried not to show how intimidated I was. All these guys had grown up playing football, they all knew each other, they were part of the popular crowd at a very cliquish high school and they all drove nice cars or trucks sir parents had bought for them. The fact that I was popular in my high school, with a total enrollment about one-fifth of theirs, suddenly meant nothing. I had grown up with a single mom who made barely over minimum wage and never socialized with other parents. I drove a hand-me-down K-Car with a huge dent in the side where someone backed into me in a parking lot four years earlier. I was struggling to stay in school, struggling to pay rent, struggling to figure out what it was I was meant to do, not feeling I was meant to be on that flag football team.
These guys, with their new cars, new clothes, educated upper-middle class backgrounds had everything figured out. And if they didn’t, I was sure their fathers would float them along until they figured things out.
All I remember about practice is running routes as a receiver and catching a few passes.
After practice, everyone headed to an apartment to hang out. I guess I was invited. I went.
With this cohort of cool, popular, well-fed guys came an equally popular cohort of attractive, popular, cool girls from the same high school. They were at this same apartment, being cool. I recognized one or two. Guys like me had heard about girls like these in high school, but we never met them. The ten or so miles that separated our schools was enough of a gulf to create a sense of exoticism: girls who lived in nice houses with nice lawns in nice neighborhood’s and drove nice cars. We called them stuck up, even though we never met them. It was a way of protecting our fragile egos in case we ever did drum up enough courage to talk to one of them only to be rebuffed. These were girls who partied in parts of town where we never went. They were mysterious. They were hot. And now, on a random afternoon, they were standing in the same living room with me and the cool guys, around a lone Lay Z Boy, drinking Budweiser and watching MTV. I was out of my element.
Even MTV was foreign to me. Not because I grew up in the country, but because my parents were old. My father was almost fifty-one when I was born, my mother thirty-nine. My mother raised me in Rogers and Hammerstein and other Broadway stars. I knew Oklahoma and South Pacific by heart. I had seen Porgy and Bess in Houston’s Alley Theater when I was about six and my mother worked a second job there as an usher. Fiddler on the Roof was the very first movie I saw in a theater. We didn’t watch MTV, we watched “Name That Tune.” My mother was against anything representing counter culture, especially music. Rock and roll led to drugs and sex and living in sin. Elvis Presley was vile and vulgar. Ozzie Osborne and KISS had emerged straight from hell to grab young people by the ankles and pull us into eternal fire. I did not listen to rock.
Summers spent with my dad were filled with long car rides to round on his customers with KQUE on the radio. It was a big band station that sometimes played contemporary music like Herb Alpert. I knew more about Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey than I did about the Rolling Stones.
So here I was, in a cool apartment with cool guys and hot girls, drinking beer illegally, watching MTV, when this new video starts playing and everyone pays attention to it. I didn’t know Guns N’ Roses. It seemed like an awful,name for a band to me.
And then the blonde walked into the room.
She’s one of the girls I had seen from afar, and almost kind of knew a little, but I had never talked to her. She wasn’t especially pretty, and she wasn’t hot, but she was a cool chick and oozed sexy. She was tall, thin and had long, straight blonde hair that just hung around her shoulders. I think her name was Jennifer, or maybe Jenny. She had acne scars and didn’t seem to care. She was kind of gritty. She had great legs, long and shapely and tanned. She was the kind of girl a guy could hang out with all day, drinking and partying, on a beach somewhere, and maybe he’d get laid or maybe not, and either way it was cool.
She started swaying to Sweet Child O Mine and mouthing the lyrics. She said something about how cool Slash was, and I deduced he must be the guitar player with hair like Cousin It on the Addams Family. I just stood in the room, against a wall, staring at her.
I heard her talking about playing tennis, and she was thinking about transferring to LSU and trying to walk on the team there.
Someone said something about pot, which I knew absolutely nothing about. Jenny made a reference to being able to get pot back home, where her dad was a cop.
I sensed an opening, a chance for me to say something cool. I must have had a few beers in me; liquid courage. I spoke up.
“Cops know where the best pot is.”
Where did I get that bit of knowledge? A TV show? Hill Street Blues? Maybe I had heard it from my sister, a great authority on the subject of pot and other illegal activity. But I spoke on absolutely zero authority. This was the very first thing I said while standing in the apartment, surrounded by the cool. And I said it out loud. To Jenny, in an oblique way. And Jenny heard me. I know this because she replied.
“Cops HAVE the best pot.”
Here was a cool chick, in a cool setting, with cool people, saying col stuff, and I said something I think would be cool. Only, it wasn’t. Because Jenny struck me down with five little words and a quick sideward glance that said, “dude, who the hell are you and why are you breathing my air? Go back to your little country school.”
I played in only one flag football game. I showed up with my real friends, a little drunk, and looked for Jenny without trying to be seen like I was looking for Jenny. I played a few downs on defense. On one play I dived at an opposing player running toward me, flailing my arms and hands and somehow stripping him of a flag. I don’t know if Jenny was there or not. I don’t remember sticking around for the end of the game. I think we lost. I remember my friends cheered and yelled when I got the flag.
The next week I came down with some kind of sickness. Maybe it was the time I had pneumonia. I used it as an excuse to leave the team, which I did without any announcement. I just stopped showing up. After the season I ran into the jock who was a jerk, and he asked me where I’d been. I made up a story about getting really ill and having too much school work. He told me the team came together and jelled in time to make the playoffs. Maybe they even won the division, I don’t know. I had probably tune him out.
I never saw Jenny again. I don’t know if she transferred to LSU or continued to play tennis, or dropped out and got married and pregnant, or pregnant and married.
I’m not sure I was really attracted to Jenny. I think I was attracted to the idea of Jenny — cool, athletic, carefree, smart enough to be in college, and maybe a lot smarter, but she didn’t let it show. She was kind of pretty but not caught up in being pretty. She didn’t really give a fuck, and she liked bad-boy rockers with crazy hair and she smoked pot her dad confiscated. For a few minutes one afternoon I was in Jenny’s circle, while, Slash shredded a solo and Axl Rose screamed and whined.
Where do we go, now? Where do we go? Where do we go, now?