The pattern began before I moved to my new apartment. I had recently swapped out my old Mazda Sundowner pickup for an ‘86 Bronco II, which had been my family’s workhorse for years prior to its being put out to pasture with me, and gaining the sobriquet Millennium Bronco (its hyperdrive was similarly unreliable, and I never even attempted the Kessel Run.) I would drive to Danielle’s house, check if her car was in the driveway, and if it was, ring the doorbell. (Calling ahead was for chumps.) If it wasn’t, I would seek out Caspar’s dad’s liquor cabinet. If that failed too, it was a disappointed return home and locking myself away with Soundgarden, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails.
I had way more free time on my hands than Danielle. By the end of August, she was at high school six hours a day. She had an evening math class at the college (just like I did the year before, but hers was due to her being too advanced, rather than mathematically retarded like me.) She had a job at Round Table, and just got a second job as a hostess at a family restaurant. (Yuba City folks loved them some family restaurants — Sizzler, Lyon’s, Perko’s, Jerry’s, Hal’s, Mr. Steak, and the ever-present Denny’s just across the river in Marysville.) That August and September, the precious few hours she had each week before doing something productive were more often than not spent on her family room couch with me, watching videos, or listening to some new CD I’d bought over to spin on the player perched on her kitchen counter. She was also undoubtedly bracing herself for the inevitable moment when I would try to kiss her. Between coughs.
The aforementioned Soundgarden, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails were also all over MTV right around then. The intensely creepy video for the pseudo-psychedelic “Black Hole Sun” was in heavy rotation that summer, so viewers were treated to its face-melting CGI nightmare fuel every 45 minutes or so.
We did get off the couch occasionally. I took her to the opening weekend of the Oliver Stone gonzo bloodbath Natural Born Killers, illustrating how completely tone-deaf I was as to what girls might want to see at the movies on a date. I don’t even recall asking if she wanted to see it. I just announced that was what we were seeing.
But Danielle seemed to tolerate me. When I finally worked up the courage to kiss her cheek (high on the jawbone, near the ear), she accepted it gracefully, but it did not lead to a make-out session. I even asked “Was that OK?” (ever the gentleman) and she said “Yeah, it was nice.” I didn’t push any further at that point.
In my defense, her mother, little brother, and two dogs loved me. Her brother, a sophomore, was another overachiever-type and worked at the McDonald’s in the same shopping center as my video store. He would make me quadruple quarter-pounders (just called “pounders.”) Eating these on a regular basis may be solely responsible for the shooting pain in my left arm every time I rise from a seated position two decades later.
A lot did seem to be going right. But I couldn’t push through to the next level with her. The issue couldn’t possibly be me, could it?
Gas was cheap in ‘94, hovering around a buck-twenty per gallon. I did a lot of aimless driving around, listening to sports talk or the oldies station (no CD player in the Millennium Bronco…yet), but I always ended up seeing if Danielle was home.
As we’ve discussed, Danielle was a busy girl. Her car was there maybe one out of every three or four days that I checked. I imagined her being disappointed on the days she was there and I somehow missed her. Missing her was a highly unlikely scenario because I watched that driveway like a hawk, but I imagined it nonetheless. “When I Come Around” was Green Day’s version of a ballad, and it was then and remains today my favorite song by them. The lyrical narrator is always “out on the prowl,” while the object of his affection is just sitting around “feeling sorry for [her]self.” I naturally applied this scenario to my situation. I was the roaming free spirit, she was the faithful waiter. Pure fantasy, of course…but there was an odd little hiccup that indicated I was subconsciously aware that whatever was going on with Danielle was kind of doomed.
I had a habit of slightly tweaking song lyrics when I would sing along with them to better suit my current state of mind. Even at the height of my delusions, I couldn’t kid myself about the last verse of “When I Come Around.” I mentally reversed the pronouns when I sang along with the song (which was often), switching the song’s “you” and “your” for “I” and “my.” As in “I may find out that my self-doubt/Means nothing was ever there/I can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right…” Very telling.
But “forcing something” I did. I pushed my chips to the center of the table one night as I was leaving, and planted a kiss squarely on her lips. She smiled, and continued saying whatever she had been saying before I moved in. But she did smile. I was hoarding whatever positive signs I got from her, because evidence that this was not going to work was piling up. (The coughing was a purely a nervous reflex at this point, and still lingering.)
Not long after that, I finally asked her to make it official with me. We were up in her bedroom, and she was doing something incredibly labor intensive (draining a waterbed, I think), and I sat cross-legged (not helping) on the floor, nervously fingering my shark’s tooth on a pukka shell necklace that I got in Hawaii a couple of months before. (It went nicely with the three-button polo shirt I was also wearing at the time. Why anyone would let me in their house is beyond me.) I steered the conversation toward Official Couplehood, and she didn’t steer it elsewhere (lack of panicked refusal = permission to continue). I ended up making clear that I was very low-maintenance. But the way I phrased it — “It doesn’t take much to make me happy” — didn’t come across the way I intended it. “Oh, thanks,” was the sarcastic reply. Smooth operator that I was, I somehow rescued the situation, and left for work that evening with the (ambivalent) impression I had a girlfriend again.
Everyone tries to claim that only the most cutting-edge stuff defined their generation. The more embarrassing stuff that was actually super popular gets swept under the rug. The early ‘70s, in reality, were probably far more Bobby Sherman than Led Zeppelin. I guarantee you “Me And You And A Dog Named Boo” came out of more speakers at the time than Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music and early Genesis combined. But we remember what makes us seem cool.
I’m here to tell you that the most inescapable album of 1993-94 was, in fact, Aerosmith’s Get A Grip. Like it or not, for those of us who were there to view the 1993-94 musical landscape, and are now honest enough to view the past without cool-colored glasses, we have to admit the sight we saw was way more Aerosmith than, say, Rage Against The Machine. The massive hit singles spun off of that omnipresent album (seven, officially) were a music/music video carpet bombing campaign, and there was nowhere to hide. They did give us Alicia Silverstone when she was still a hot video vixen, instead of the deranged anti-vaxxer crackpot who pre-chews her kids’ food that she mutated into.
We took possession of our new apartment over Labor Day weekend. The album had been out almost a year-and-a-half at that point, and it was Unofficial Roommate Dan’s main contribution to the 5-disc changer. In addition to the bottomless supplies of instant coffee, ramen, and Kraft mac & cheese with which he paid his rent, he provided a daily dose of “Livin’ On The Edge.” It was his “wake-up song.” Dan was always up a little earlier than the rest of us, in order to be up in the foothills running the campground concession stand. My bedroom shared a thin wall with the living room, so “Livin’ On The Edge” became my wake-up song too, very much against my will.
I settled into apartment life. All five of us weren’t there together at the same time too frequently, except in the post-midnight hours. When we were together, console gaming wasn’t really a thing we did all that much. I had a Super Nintendo and Caspar had a Sega, but we rarely hooked them up. We played some PC games, but that was a solo activity. We were music listeners and old-fashioned conversationalists. And TV viewers, although that wasn’t the initial plan….
When we first moved in, we decided for budgetary reasons that there would be no cable. Our television set would be for VCR movies only, which I could bring home by the bushel from my job. The Dirty Harry marathon was fun, but I was the first to crack in the face of the “no TV” policy. I began taping hours and hours of random television (usually syndicated re-runs), complete with commercials, at my parents’ house. That way, I could throw on the tapes at the apartment and have a reasonable imitation of TV as background noise. After a month or so of this, I announced we were getting cable, even if I had to pay for all of it myself. “Thank God,” came the immediate reply from my assorted cohabitants, and everyone ended up chipping in. MTV was back as the dominant force, as was NBC’s “Must-See TV.” This was the fall that Friends and ER made their debut on Thursday nights.
The front door was never locked. Close friends and distant acquaintances came and went. There was Chas, half-black, half-Puerto Rican, and all suave. He went by the nickname “Lando.” (I even let him drive the Millennium Bronco a few times.) There was Ginny, Dan’s on-again, off-again paramour (who just scraped the bottom end of 4’11” and maxed out at 85 pounds, so there was plenty of room for her on the couch with Dan). There was Eddy, the masseuse trainee, who lugged his folding table up to practice on Audrey (under Caspar’s careful supervision). There was whoever McKinney tracked in that night. And a supporting cast of old high school friends who hadn’t yet skipped town for greener pastures. And, like a bad sitcom, there were visits from Caspar & Audrey’s out-of-town older siblings. You know how comic strip or cartoon characters occasionally have a sibling show up, and they’re drawn almost the same as the original character, with one or two different traits? Caspar’s brother (who I called “Mycroft”) was a stockier, bespectacled version of Caspar, with an even deeper Star Trek obsession. Audrey’s sister was a scrawnier, more bitterly acerbic version of Audrey, brunette instead of redhead, who was convinced I was gay (based on my striped-shirt pic below, I can now see where she was coming from.)
By the nature of our jobs, work nights were always late nights, but on the nights I had nothing to do, I took perverse pleasure in retiring early. My roommates were not like-minded. Either among themselves or with a random sampling of the folks described above, they kept the loud chitchat and louder music going until the eastern horizon glowed pink. My apoplectic fits of rage over this household policy became apartment legend. The time I burst out of my room and subconsciously channeled the Breakfast Club principal — “If you sonsabitches don’t quiet the fuck down, I’m going to start cracking skulls!” — was my quote that became enshrined in our collective lore forever.
I ultimately found a solution. As much as I loved music, I could never fall asleep to it. But spoken-word stuff always soothed me into slumber. So every night that I retired ahead of everyone else, I would put on my double CD containing the first three George Carlin albums, and a comically massive set of ‘70s headphones (it looked like I was cutting a track with the Partridge Family), and drifted off, undisturbed. I just couldn’t turn my head or roll onto my side.
I don’t really know what happened with Danielle after I assumed I had made our relationship official. I think the next several times I tried to hang out or go somewhere with her, she was working. Or studying. She certainly wasn’t among the motley crew parading in and out of my apartment. I can’t remember her making a single visit.
I was still clinging to the bright-eyed interest she had shown that very first night, at this point two months in the past. Songs on the radio taunted me. “A taste of honey’s worse than none at all,” Smokey Robinson empathized from the oldies station. I also may have been the only person in western civilization to purchase Gilby Clarke’s solo album, Pawn Shop Guitars, which got a spin on Danielle’s kitchen CD player. I had, and still have, a soft spot for all the Keith Richards acolytes out there in rock & roll land. Joe Perry, Johnny Thunders, Rich Robinson, and of course, the great Izzy Stradlin, Guns N’ Roses’ original rhythm guitarist and K.R. clone par excellence. When he quit G’n’R, he was replaced by Gilby Clarke, and when the band finally imploded not long after, Clarke bashed out his own album which had one killer song, whose title and overall theme certainly matched how I was feeling. The rest of the album consisted of a few other songs that kind of sounded like that first song, and covers of The Clash’s “Jail Guitar Doors” and The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” (with Axl’s “special guest” backing vocals so prominent in the mix it sounded like he was vocally dog-piling poor Gilby.)
Speaking of The Stones, I played my final card with Danielle: On a whim back in August, I went to the Ticketmaster counter in the Wherehouse on the morning Rolling Stones tickets went on sale. There was no line, and I acquired two nosebleed seats at the Oakland Coliseum for the October 29 show of the Voodoo Lounge Tour. I kept them a secret.
When I finally sprung them on her, she just sighed and said she would definitely be working on the Saturday night of the Stones concert, and didn’t seem open to taking the night off to see The Rolling-Goddamn-Stones. How she looked when she told me this is flash-frozen in my memory — already in her polyester Round Table uniform but barefoot, curling (or perhaps flattening? — I don’t know) her hair, in preparation for another evening shift. The fact that I was kind of pathetic, leaning idly (creepily?) against the bathroom doorway trying to squeeze in a few minutes with her before she left for work, finally hit me with nuclear force. A moment of clarity, if you will: She obviously did not have time for a boyfriend, and may have succumbed to my relentless jackhammer courtship (part of my charm) out of kindness in that particular moment, hoping that she could avoid me from then on to the point I would let the matter drop. Which is just what happened.
To re-cap: I had asked. She had said yes. Then I hardly ever saw her again. We never broke up, officially. I just stopped coming over. (Since nothing was ever said, we may still be going out, which would be a big surprise to her husband and three kids.)
I have already written about seeing Reservoir Dogs on video in a previous entry, and how it revolutionized the way I watched movies. Quentin Tarantino had become my new cinematic hero. The upside of coming late to the game for Reservoir Dogs meant that the wait for his follow-up would be mercifully short. Pulp Fiction had made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and had been on the cover of Entertainment Weekly’s much-anticipated Fall Movie Preview issue that summer. When it opened at the Yuba City multiplex on October 14, 1994, I was there for the 10:10 showing (I still have the ticket.) It wasn’t a blockbuster. It didn’t even play in the theater’s large auditorium. It was in one of the smaller “hallway” auditoriums, and it was about half full. Two middle-aged couples walked out partway through. But I was absolutely enraptured. When I walked out of the theater sometime after one a.m., my first instinct was to see it again as soon as possible.
I came back the next night with Dan. And the next weekend with Caspar & Audrey. And I saw it one more time by myself. The Pulp Fiction poster went up on our wall, and the Pulp Fiction soundtrack went into our collective 5-disc changer (featuring this Neil Diamond cover by Chicago hipsters Urge Overkill), Pulp Fiction dialogue livened up our conversations (whoever got mad enough to finally do the dishes was a “mushroom cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker”).
I believe a Rolling Stones concert has been foreshadowed…
I could only afford to let the Danielle fiasco faze me for a week or so. I was desperate for that rebound, and I already had my eye on a petite blonde in my Advanced Composition & Critical Thinking class. Sandra could be described as waif-like, and gave off a distinct Stevie Nicks vibe. She actually wore a shawl. She worked at the Wal-Mart jewelry counter. Just the sort who might be enticed by Rolling Stones tickets. I don’t recall having more than three actual conversations with her before I waved those beauties in her face, and she went for it.
She lived in a small house right next to the Live Oak graveyard. As I walked up her front walk to pick her up on the morning of the concert, the air was heavy with echoing piano chords. She was a pianist, and a dramatic one. She let me in, and the asked me to wait until she finished practicing. All the shades were pulled in her empty house, and she completed her thundering Gothic interlude, head thrown back. If I had heard of Tori Amos at that point, I would have been put in mind of her.
The drive down to Oakland went well, except for one conversational snafu. I had been waxing ecstatic about 007 movies, when she cut me off with the comment that she never cared for them, finding them misogynistic. I cocked my head in puzzlement like a golden retriever. That fact had honestly never occurred to me. What kind of world was I living in that someone could approach a James Bond movie with anything less than unbridled enthusiasm? Food for thought.
The concert itself was a great spectacle. Despite our seats way up on the third level, I could feel the heat from the pyrotechnics on my face (those boys put on a hell of a show.) The distance between our seats and the stage was so great that the motions on the Jumbotron were about half-a-second out of synch with the sound coming out of the speakers. The Voodoo Lounge album was, I believe, the Stones’ strongest in years (read my review!), which added to the overall positive experience. With the last notes of the encore, “Jumping Jack Flash,” still ringing in the air, we moved into the crush of people heading for the exit. She said she would just hang on to my the back of my shirt to avoid getting separated, which was as intimate as we ever got. We bought T-shirts from the shady bootleggers in the parking lot, and made the two-plus hour drive back to Live Oak. She went to sleep almost immediately, relieving me of the fear I would stumble into a conversational briar patch similar to my James Bond faux pas.
Afterwards, there were a few more dates with Sandra, if you can call them that, mostly revolving around movies. There was my patented Lyon’s-and-a-movie date (in Sandra’s case, the movie was Interview With The Vampire), and the more chill hanging-at-my-parent’s-house-after-they’ve-gone-to-bed-and-watching-a-movie date (in Sandra’s case Four Weddings And A Funeral, which became my go-to film for bringing a girl home.)
This time I didn’t have to be hit over the head with the fact she wasn’t really interested. I gave up after only a few instances of dropping by the jewelry counter at Wal-Mart, ostensibly on other errands. (We all go to Wal-Mart three or four times a week, right? Always in the evenings between 5:30 and 11:00?) Even if I was convinced I was the only one who could give her what she needed. (So what do you think she needed? pipes up the voice in the back. Shut up. You know I don’t know.)
Alone again. (Or alone still, rather.) But I was always learning.