Long(ing)

Mister Smith, Mister Smith/
He don’t give a damn/
Mister Smith, Mister Smith/
Mister Smith, Mister Smith/
Everybody’s man

“I’d like to introduce you to someone I think you’d like,” Gina lit a stick of Nag Champa in her one-bedroom flat. “Someone nice.” Karen, who was just over for the tea and chit-chat, was unsure whether her friend’s suggestion was out of the triteness of tradition or habit. Gina had been in her most recent fling with David for a few weeks. This was about that time in the relationship, Karen knew, when Gina started getting ideas for her single friends, as if they were completely incapable of meeting new prospects on their own. Maybe it was romantic idealism at work, or she was justifying her own horny, mismatched conquests. Karen didn’t want to say it, but David clearly was a passing fancy.

It was late December. The snow outside was still white; it wouldn’t be long before it was slate colored slush. Gina’s thought was that winter love could chase away the dread.

Whatever Gina’s justification for her proposition, the look on her face was not something new–that brow of benevolence, that downturned mouth of pity asking, “Are you ok?” What she really meant was “You don’t have anyone right now, do you?” and wanted so much to fix it, as if it would make everything right in the world.

“It’s not that hard, you know, if you want it. You put on your favorite choker and just the right shade of lipstick, carnal cranberry or red mystique or something,” Karen wanted to say, but it seemed so obvious at this point. Come on. It’s the ‘90s. She took a sip of her tea instead. Plus, they had gone out many times before. She wasn’t a hermit. Gina, who jumped from person to person, didn’t seem to understand that you didn’t always need someone.

Nevertheless, it was supposed to be that time in their lives when meeting someone could have some greater meaning: the start of a life. That phrase felt wrong. After engaging in third wave discourse at the university, Karen thought her generation would be a little more accepting of a different definition for “the start of a life.” No. Revolutionary speak stayed right there within the construct of the institution. God forbid anybody miss their marks. It didn’t matter whether they liked girls or boys; pair off into seriousness is what they did. And that was fine with her, but she didn’t expect that being alone would either make her feel like a radical, or someone for whom to feel sorry.

Gina smiled a little at Karen’s loathing. “I think you’ll find that James is different. You two have a lot in common. He and his band are on the verge, Kare. He’s into his music the way you are your writing. Neither of you are looking for that normal life.” Karen ignored the fact that Gina didn’t say that they were both musicians. It had been at least a year since she had written any music.

She remembered the last time Gina set her up with someone. Before she introduced them, she had described him as having long curly hair–”curlies,” she called them. What she didn’t say was that he wore oversized levis and a scowl. The scowl, pants, and “curlies” all overpowered his scrawny frame.

But this was ages ago. Karen didn’t want to be combative, so she gave Gina a time-earned pass. Things had changed. She agreed to meet this new guy, whom her friend assured was completely normal. In fact, Gina’s mother met him when she came to the city and asked why Gina wasn’t dating him instead of David. Maybe Karen had the wrong attitude. She hadn’t been able to shake the over analysis, paralysis, and bitterness that college had left with her. Normal life. Abnormal life. Who cares? You can never have too many friends.

Karen had just started writing again, her favorite past time, where the paralysis had most recently manifested. Yes, it had not only affected how she looked at relationships; it had impacted her art. She was usually private about it. She just wanted to make something, anything, it didn’t matter. But somewhere down the line, she started listening to what other people said. There wasn’t room for her to grow without being keenly aware of how others openly defined everything. Sometimes they were writing off other people. “Oh yeah, a chick who rocks. That’s cool. Do you play bass [like Kim Deal, like Kim Gordon, like D’Arcy, like Sean Yseult, like Tina Weymouth]? It seems like the girls in the band always play bass.” And the assumption was that it was easy. First off, she didn’t play bass. She played guitar. But more importantly, anyone who had tried to play a bass knew that the frets and strings were quite large and required a lot of strength, flexibility, and control, like any instrument. It started to make sense why Sleater-Kinney didn’t have a bassist.

Other times when people were trying to define what others did it came off as a way to categorize, and maybe it was just a way for them to feel smart or proud. Everyone deserved to feel that. She couldn’t say she was above it. But the definitions held a power over her abilities, and she couldn’t push through it. Gone were the days where she wasn’t aware enough to even pay attention to definitions and write-offs. She made things because she made things, just like one loves because one loves.

She was grappling with it. But writing was finally coming a little easier and taking up a lot of her time. She had just gotten a few pieces published in a couple of things, one more “notable” local source and a few ‘zines, and it was harder to meet new people because it took the energy she was devoting to getting back into something. This new person, though, could possibly mix things up in the right way.

Karen agreed to meet up with Gina at James’s band’s next show at the Yahtzee, a bar that showcased local up-and-coming bands. “He doesn’t even know you’re coming,” Gina assured her. She rarely frequented Yahtzee because its atmosphere was too nice to feel comfortable going alone but too casual to want to dress up and make it a to-do kind of night with friends.

Lights and flashy garlands still hung hopefully from Yahtzee’s wood trim and walls, masking the nails’ scars from years past. If the place left them up all year, it would mean they’d get dusty enough to have to clean them (which probably wouldn’t happen) and faded enough to give away just how cheap and flimsy the decorations really were. Instead, like most businesses, they left them up long enough for everyone to get sick of them–just past New Year’s. When Karen arrived at the door to get carded, she could see that Gina and James were already at a table talking. The back of his blonde dreadlocks hung over the shoulders of his tawny suede jacket.

Gina smiled upon seeing her and waved excitedly. Karen waved back as the doorman tried to hand her i.d. back to her. Her body felt just out of her control, so that anything she did seemed unnatural. She smiled at him and attempted to take her card but didn’t quite grasp it at the right time, and it fell to the floor. She went to pick it up. I don’t even know what my intentions are, and I still have nerves. This is why prefaces don’t do anything for a situation. It’s impossible to avoid intention if you know someone else has them for you. Still, for the occasion she had put on her cranberry lipstick and favorite black choker with the silver sun & moon medallion.

She was pleasantly surprised that she didn’t trip as she walked over to the table. She sat down next to Gina, who went through introductions. She tried to smile. She could already tell that he knew about her in the way that she knew about him. A bit doe-eyed for a musician, she thought, but he had “the look”: Doc Martens, Out of Time t-shirt and flannel under his jacket, five o’clock shadow that was more like ten o’clock, and cuffed relaxed fit jeans. His clothes wanted to be worn out and lackadaisical, but the colors and seams were too crisp. She was old enough to know better than to fall for the implications of attire. There was something about the crispness, however, that felt like the first shoulder tap of a red flag.

Karen didn’t expect Gina to get up so quickly, but she had spotted some people she knew and took the opportunity to leave them.

The place was already packed, so they had to yell. “So Gina tells me you write. That’s cool.” Karen thought about how Gina had never actually read anything that she had written but liked to tell people she was a writer. “What type of stuff do you write?”

“Well, short stories mostly, but–” she was about to tell him about her recently published work that was more non-fiction when he cut her off.

“Oh yeah. Well, you know, a song is a lot like a short story. At least the way I write them. I’m always thinking about characters. They may be people from my life or just made up. But, you know, I’ll just… go to a diner by myself and think about them. Sometimes it’s like they’re talking to me, and I’ll jot notes down on my napkin, but I find that if I take paper with me, it blocks me.”

“Yeah, a lot of–”

His voice got louder. “It’ll–It’ll just feel like the characters have something to say, so I’ll jot it down on my napkin. Sometimes I tell the story like they’re me and sometimes I’ll tell it like they’re someone separate from me. I think that’s called perspective…” She was ready for him to draw her a diagram, much like her grade school teacher had on the chalkboard to help the students understand the difference between first, second, and third person.

“It’s–”

He cut her off again and continued on about his writing process, like how to combat “the voice in my head that tells me what’s wrong with my work” (to which she almost shouted “inner critic!” over the crowd but didn’t feel up to it), and what techniques to use to make phrases rhyme. Every time she tried to add something about art, about music, about writing, she got a consonant in and maybe a vowel, and then he’d interrupt her. Then suddenly he stopped talking, and there was a pause in the conversation. She realized she could take the floor if she wanted it, but by that point she had stopped listening to what he was saying and had lost anything she had wanted to say, so she said nothing. And the two sat silently for a moment.

“So I hear you’ve been signed and you just finished a new album,” she inquired to break the silence.

“Yeah, we’re in the packaging process, which is, like, the final step. One of the reps that’s been helping us with promotion thinks that this one song could be a hit. It’s about one of those characters I was telling you about. He’s like one of my favorite older people that hang out at one of my favorite bars. We always look at women together…“ His voice drifted off, and he looked at her like a kid who had gotten caught doing something wrong, like she was about to be his angry mom. He shrugged and smiled: he couldn’t help liking good looking women, much like boys can’t help getting in trouble.

She didn’t feel like an angry mom and wanted to make sure he knew that but didn’t know what to say without making it sound like it actually bothered her. There was nothing wrong with looking at attractive people. They were everywhere. The only thing she found a little perturbing was that this was a regular thing that he and his friend hung out and did. Maybe talking about this sort of thing was charming to some women. She had no gauge for what normally “worked” and didn’t. Would it matter?

“Hey,” a tall guy in a baggy Grover t-shirt who looked about their age approached James, whispered in his ear, and walked away.

“That’s my drummer. Time for me to get ready. But I really enjoyed talking with you. You’ll be here after, right?” He looked at her hopefully. She couldn’t fathom what he was so charmed by to say something like that, but couldn’t help but be flattered, so she agreed. She wanted to find Gina and David to see how their night was progressing, and to hear James’s band. She was curious.

She found them near the stage waiting for the show to begin. Gina asked, “So what did you think?”

“Well,” Karen made a face.

“What? No spark?”

She sighed. “No, he just talked a lot.”

“He’s probably just nervous, Kare! Give him a break. His last girlfriend really broke his heart. Some people just talk when they’re nervous.”

“This one is, uh, off our new album,” James said as he leaned slightly away from the mic and held the back of his neck. He seemed comfortably awkward on the stage, and the audience looked relatively engaged for a bar. He strummed the first clangy chord on his red Jaguar; the crowd clamoured. Karen noticed that a lot of people were smiling in recognition, glad to see this group on the stage. They had a following. “It should be coming out next month.”

Come down to the local joint where I play/
Order some Old Crow and have a say/
Which gorgeous gal is gonna have her way/

Mister Smith, Mister Smith/
Mister Smith, Mister Smith/

But we know that one day /
It won’t always be this way/
We’re going down in history anyway/
Isn’t that right, Mister Smith? Isn’t that?/

Mister Smith, Mister Smith/
Mister Smith, Mister Smith/

Hate to say it, Mister Smith, but she’s eyeing me./
Hate to say it, Mister Smith, but she’s vying for me./

“Oh, this is my favorite part right here!” Gina yelled in Karen’s ear. James stopped bouncing, tilted his head, and put one side of his mouth onto the microphone while looking up at the ceiling.

Maybe you’ll get the next one/
I said maybe you’ll get that next one/
Maybe you’ll get that next one, Mister Smiiith/
because we’ll always have fun.

“Because we’ll always have fun. Ok. Good for you,” Karen thought to herself. She didn’t hate his music; it was more that she didn’t know what to make of it or of the crowd responding so enthusiastically. What made this band different than the others? Everyone else seemed to know. Even though she wasn’t exactly enjoying the music, she felt left out.

After the set, Karen, Gina, David, and James all stood together when a girl, probably about 18, sheepishly came up to James. “That part where you sing about how you and your friend want to be famous? I can really relate to that.” He thanked her.

Gina nodded. “He is wise. And he has such a way with words that makes me feel what he’s singing. To me it’s about that hope because you never know what’s around the corner.”

James didn’t say anything, but he was obviously flattered. “Anyway, uh, what did you think?” he asked Karen.

“Heyyy, Mr. Smith,” a girl from the audience drunkenly approached and fell into him. It was difficult to tell whether she tripped and stumbled or threw herself at him; maybe it was a combination of both.

“I think I’m going to head out,” Karen said.

“Really? Oh…” He looked at her as if they had known each other for years, and she was letting him down.

“Yeah, it’s been a long day. I got up really early.” It was partially true.

She said her goodbyes and walked out into the night towards home, stripped of any pretension. She welcomed the stillness and the cold air on her warm, slightly buzzed body.

“So are you going to see him again?” Gina asked her a few days later on the phone.

“No, I think we’re just not right for each other.”

“Oh.” Gina paused. “You know, he really likes you. I was asking him about you the other day, and he is smitten. He said that you’re really something.”

Karen didn’t know what to say. She had barely told him anything about… well, anything. And she had bailed early that night. “I just don’t think it’s right.”

Gina couldn’t believe what she was saying. “He’s a really special person. You both are really… unique, and there are no two people like you. You both have a way of looking at the world differently.”

What was Gina trying to say about both of them, and why was she trying to push them together like that (in such an empty-phrased, cliched way again)? Karen wasn’t sure. She decided that she wasn’t going to go out anymore for a while.

Over the next week, James called Karen a couple of times and left messages on her machine, telling her he’d like to see her again. Gina left a message, as well, telling her to come out to Yahtzee with David, James, and her one night. Karen didn’t call them back.

She didn’t have many friends besides Gina who still liked to go out to bars, so she spent a lot of nights at home writing. She imagined what it might have been like if she had decided to join the three of them to become the ultimate pair of duos. The nights would probably be filled with a lot of booze and small talk, bonding, possibly some gossip, and little jokes that wouldn’t be remembered the next day. We’ll always have fun. Cathartic in the moment, but not long lasting, so they would go out again. She couldn’t have kept it up for very long. It was better that she opted out.

Months later, while cleaning her tub and listening to an alternative station, she heard a familiar set of clangy chords. “Come down to the local joint where I play…” It was James’s “Mister Smith” song on the radio. That awkward night, something she hadn’t thought about in a while, came right back. Well, he wasn’t kidding about this song.

She scrubbed, listened, and thought about what Courtney Love had said about when she heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time on the radio. She and her friend looked at each other and knew they were thinking the same thing: they could have written it. But how could they have really known that? Not that “Mr. Smith” and this anthem of a generation could be compared, but how much of “Smells’” popularity was about the song itself? Was it the production, the band’s image, promotion? Was it just a matter of the right place, the right time, and the right people? When it came down to it, even if Courtney really could have written that song, it wouldn’t have mattered.

Of course, Courtney went on to marry Kurt. Karen thought about what would have happened if she had gone on that second date with James. Maybe she could have deliberately fallen into him and then faked her way into a relationship. She might have gotten something out of the whole thing, at least free booze and food, whatever that meant. Whether it was true or not, women were known and often resented for this type of behavior. The idea was silly and a bit repulsive, but it was enjoyable to entertain the thought. She wasn’t pushy enough to be a Courtney and make a music career out of it. She also couldn’t be like a Casey Niccoli, the talented videographer who directed her boyfriend’s band’s hit video and spent her acceptance speech at some popular award show continuously praising him and his talent. He couldn’t even show up to hear it because he was too busy smoking crack.

“He’s such a genius and you don’t understand!” Karen said and laughed, rhythmically scouring to the music.

Smith Generation

Anthea Schroeder