Music has always been very important to me. Many times when I look back at a time or a memory, a song will sneak in before an image. I thought it would be interesting to look back at people and moments by tapping into this quirk. This is the first in what I am thinking of calling my “With Music” series.
She had elf ears.
People confuse elf ears with vulcan ears, but that is just not fair. Vulcan ears (Spock) look out of place for a reason; they are alien, different. The old Star Trek was filled with this. Want something to look alien? Accent something that we are not used to. But elf ears are different. They are an extension of nature, they embrace the face, accenting, like a playful cursive twist at the end of a letter. They can remind more of a vine slowing stretching just that little bit farther up.
I first saw her at a writing table. It was being held at a local museum and everyone else there isn’t worth mentioning or remembering. Cruel to say, I know, but by then I had attended enough writing tables (thanks to colleges and bookstores and libraries) so that people fell more into categories than something flesh and blood. There was the guy who wants to be Stephen King (a little creepy and always stares a little too much), the older woman wanting to write a nice romance (I always feel there is hidden heartbreak there), the angry youth (who may or may not share poetry, but would always share their annoyance through expressions), the man with the mustache who is writing a thriller (there is always a man with a mustache who is writing an action thriller) and etc., etc., etc.
Writing tables like that, including the one with the young woman with the elf ears, was one of the reasons I was moving to Los Angeles. I had attended a lot of them while living in Grand Rapids, hoping one would give me some kind of sign of what to do next in my life and writing career. Frankly, by then I had been waiting enough. That is what my life felt like up until that moment, one long wait.
I had waited through college, waited through part of grad school, and now waited while counting down to when I was to leave in December for the University of Southern California. Sunny Los Angeles… where I was certain all my writing dreams would come true and everyone would recognize me for the genius I was sure I was.
I’m not sure even why I decided to attend this writing table. I was invited to stop by via the people that had started it (at least that is how I remember it), but I rarely got anything out of them. They always felt in the end more like support groups. Some people deal with alcoholism and drugs, we deal with the false hope of art and creative writing.
“Hi, my name is Scott and I am an author.”
At that first meeting, they put the writing group over in a side office of the museum. A room of mostly introverts locked together, not always a good way to start. She was sitting across from me in an old bean bag and my eyes were first drawn to the ears. I couldn’t help myself. They gave her a sense of magic, at least in my wandering mind (which was wandering more and more to her).
She seemed very nice, nodding and giving suggestions to each of those that shared their work. There was a weird energy to her. I wouldn’t call it electric, more like a positive vacuum; yes, she would take something when she looked at a person, but you didn’t mind. You seemed to like the attention and the thievery, like it was something you earned.
Originally, I was not planning to share a story, but after a few minutes of watching her, I pulled out an old story out of my backpack that was reliable for getting attention. I introduced myself and began.
She was the first to smile.
I grew up around Grand Rapids and when I was young there always seemed to be spiritual conflicts within the city and its suburbs. Things just didn’t seem to hold well together. You had the conservative schools and churches, while on the other hand the arts and the liberals. You just couldn’t escape religion wherever you went, from the bookstores selling nothing but religious books to the politics and in many ways it always felt like the arts and the left camp lost, nodding and just accepting whatever a person believed since it was easier to do that than be considered an outcast from everyone.
In many ways she represented every side of that argument I saw dwelling under Grand Rapids, for she did have multiple personalities to her as well under the surface.
The first personality was the one she created for her parents. Her father was a conservative professor at a conservative private college (one that did not teach evolution, for example). This was the part of her that had a good boyfriend (and, yes, she did have a boyfriend at the time I knew her), went to church every Sunday, and followed all of the rules given to her. This side of Grand Rapids tolerated the arts, but deemed them ultimately frivolous in the end. This was the personality that could be the harshest and most unapologetic when talking to her, but also the first one she would rebel against if given the chance. This is the one she enjoyed abandoning and she did it when she hung out with me. She told me once how she felt she could be free around me and I didn’t doubt that for a second. (Still don’t.)
The second personality is how she wanted the world to see her. She did local theater, wrote plays, performed in funny video skits with her friends. She was witty, personable, silly, and could break into song at a minute’s notice. I would say it was like a bottle of energy, but that bottle was broken years earlier. She was just pure creative artistic bliss in the air and she loved being that for people. She wanted to inspire people and be inspiration. She wanted to entertain. I was, in many ways, the perfect audience for this part of her personality and we both knew it. I even worked on a collection of short stories during that time, but in the end it wasn’t very good (I might have shared it with her, I’m not certain), but the energy to do that came from her.
The third personality was the person she actually was for she had a lot of struggles. The conflicts in her personality was not easy for her to manage. She kept this one very tight inside. In the few weeks I knew her, I think she only showed that real side to me a few times, and each time I always wondered if she was about to cry.
…And if she started, would she be able to stop?
That night we went out for a coffee after the writing table together (well, she drank coffee, I had a soda), and we ended up talking most of the evening. I found her charming and she was into pretty much everything I was- literature, plays, movies, music, etc. Start a topic and we both could have gone on for an hour on it. It was one of those magical moments you sometimes get when you are young, when the world is at your fingertips and time is secondary to possibility. A moment to be romanticized and wondered over.
We hung out together pretty much that entire week, chasing that feeling of the first evening. We went on walks, talked on the phone, exchanged e-mails (with stories attached), and saw movies. She found my life interesting and would ask me questions that I think most would find boring. We even made plans to go to a concert later that month together, purchasing tickets on almost the spur of the moment.
Now throughout all of this she knew I was leaving for Los Angeles in the future. In many ways, she seemed very okay with that. Maybe it gave her a sense of liberty, because this guy who tapped so well into her second personality could come and go, leaving her to deal with her first personality that fit so much better into her created world around her.
Oh, I could psychoanalyze her and the situation, if anything she made it easy to do it! It was obvious to most that something was not exactly quite right there. It was sad, an easy comparison being a great and beautiful and exotic bird with a damaged wing. The beauty can overwhelm, but it doesn’t escape the injury also present.
At one point during our week, we snuck into her college’s theater. I think we broke in, I can’t be certain. All I know is we had to use a series of doors and possibly an open window and there was no one else in the building. She turned on the lights and for two hours performed a one-person show she had written about herself and a breakdown she had experienced as a teenager. (She even had a costume she had to wear during the performance, overalls. God, I remember the overalls.)
Yes, I was utterly memorized by this soul and at the same time she was screaming at me (literally screaming) at me from a stage that she needed help. That young version of herself did end up getting help in the story, but her arms still had the scars from her days cutting herself as a forever reminder.
She showed the scars to me later.
We ended up talking about her show in the theater for hours afterwards. I spent most of my time breaking down the high points in her performance and writing, barely only grazing the actual issues that should have been discussed around the play.
This was someone crying for help, and I was not giving it. I was buying into the performance of her life, another member happy to just be in her audience.
After our week together, her boyfriend returned to town.
He was the respectful one.
Yes, he did theater at the college too, but her family liked him (actually knew about him, let me clarify), and he was part of that circle. I saw him once and he spent the whole time sitting and standing so unnaturally close to her, worried that a breeze or a thought could take her away. I remember the three of us had dinner and I might have been cruel, I am not too certain now. I just remember being surprised that this dude was competition for me.
She was definitely different with him there. They each had a part to play, and she fell into her role, responding exactly how she was supposed to. If Holden Caulfield from Catcher on the Rye was at the table he would have called them both phonies, and not been too far off the mark. Sadly, she was the only one of the two that really knew it was fake. He wanted her (this her) to be real, so very real; and she gave it to him because she could.
There were e-mails between us after it, sometimes she would write long messages, sometimes they were short; but I was always able to pinpoint which version of her was writing.
We still went to our concert together, but it was awkward. In her mind by then I was already gone off to Los Angeles (and she liked the idea of me being there). I remember the entire drive home from the concert being uncomfortable, me trying to figure out what she exactly wanted, and even she not being able to answer. The entire exchange was like this:
Do you want me to call? I don’t know.
Do you want me to write? I don’t know.
What do you want to do? I don’t know.
And then silence.
She had no idea who she was and who she wanted to be, and probably having one less confusing bit around her would make things easier. So be it.
“Don’t Change Your Plans” by Ben Folds Five is a song about a breakup. The singer makes the decision to break up the relationship for the sake of his own wants. It’s a selfish song in many ways, giving excuses at the beginning for wanting to leave (life is short, etc.). He has things he wants to do in life and he leaves, because those aspirations are more important than her heart.
The song came out in 1999 and during that summer, I could not stop listening to that CD, but with my own departure for Los Angeles on the horizon, this song spoke to me. I listened to it in my car, while writing (probably that bad collection of stories), and I’m sure I even played it for her, most likely even during that long, quiet drive away from the concert, with both of us knowing we would probably never talk again.
Sometimes I wonder if I was being selfish like the person in that song. Many of us probably think that when they look back at old affairs and relationships. I do know, looking back at my relationships before I met my wife, that I really never fell in love with those I dated including the odd and lost and magical soul with the elf ears. I had a kind of fantastical obsession that usually drove me. I was in a story, and I wanted to see where it would go and it would hit each of my senses. I had a role to play, they had a role to play and let’s see where the story ends. I was no different probably than her boyfriend, casting her in something she may have wanted to be in. The fact is only the relationship with my wife would have worked out, all of the others I think back at (many with blushes) would had disintegrated in the harsh light of day or reality.
They just needed the time for the truth to come out. They weren’t real, but I can’t escape the slight pangs of guilt I feel every time this song comes on shuffle that I could have done something to help her and I was no better. I couldn’t possibly mend her wing, but I could have done more than maybe add to her tears and possible confusion.
In the end all I can hope is that one of her personalities did find happiness.
I hope it is the real one.
My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.
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