Getting Over Jack Wagner

BOOK: Getting Over Jack Wagner
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As the Hoagies tuned up, I studied Karl the Bass Guitarist….

Mid-set, I caught his eye as he screamed lyrics inches from the microphone. Post-set, he found me lingering deliberately near the bar.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

From there, it was pretty much textbook: a) I complimented the band, b) he bought me a beer, c) we found a pockmarked booth where we gulped our drinks and talked music and life and suffering-as-art while the black light made his teeth and eye whites shine like minnows in a tank, and d) we went back to his pad—even used the term “pad”—a basement apartment with a shag rug, lava, lamp, and surly cactus.

“You're beautiful,” he said, voice thick with Bud Light.

“Thanks.”

“No. I mean it.”

“So do I.”

He ran one calloused fingertip down the side of my face. “I could really get into knowing you,” he murmured, and looked deep into my eyes.

Deep.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An
Original
Publication of POCKET BOOKS

 

A Downtown Press Book published by
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2003 by Elise Juska

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

ISBN-13: 978-0-7434-8067-3
ISBN-10: 0-7434-8067-8

DOWNTOWN PRESS and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Designed by Jaime Putorti

Visit us on the World Wide Web:
http://www.SimonSays.com

acknowledgments

I am very lucky to have had such talented writers and supportive friends help see this book along its way: Kerry Reilly, Clark Knowles, Kevin Bresnahan, Kieran Juska, Diana Kash. Thanks to Margaret-Love Denman, whose workshop gave rise to the original story, and Bob and Peggy Boyers at
Salmagundi
for publishing it. To Whitney Lee, for her constant support and infectious energy, and Lauren McKenna, for her no-frills advice and vast CD collection. To Ben, for the Jams; Amanda and Brian, for the brainstorms; Brian and Therese, for fielding many neurotic questions; and Maureen, for falling for Jack Wagner in 1984 and never completely getting over him.

For my parents

Frisco:
Once upon a time there was a rock star who met a princess…

Robin:
Did they live happily ever after?

Frisco:
Isn't that how all good stories end?

—General Hospital

1
bass guitarists
SIDE A

“Welcome to Paradise”—Green Day

“Cool Rock Boy”—Juliana Hatfield

“Summertime Rolls”—Jane's Addiction

“Man in the Box”—Alice in Chains

“Higher Ground”—Red Hot Chili Peppers

A
s Karl the Bass Guitarist cruises along the Garden State Parkway at 90 mph in a black Saab Turbo 9000 with Rage Against the Machine's
Evil Empire
thumping through the two amp–eight driver audio system, I suspect it will soon be over between us. We are heading into the depths of New Jersey, where I will be meeting Karl's mother for the first time.

“My mom's going to be stoked,” Karl pronounces, jerking to a stop at the bottom of the off ramp. He reaches out and flicks the volume down. “I don't usually bring chicks home.”

“Oh?”

“She doesn't even know we're coming.”

“Wow.”

Karl gazes at me from behind his black shades and reaches over to knead my thigh. He has no idea what he's set himself up for. Historically, to meet a rock star's mother is to be exposed to the parts of himself he hides on stage. It's to discover his embarrassing memories and vulnerabilities, every bad haircut, nickname, wet bed, lunch box, moon walk, band uniform and early eighties cassette he's ever tried to deny and leave behind. These are just the kinds of intimate details I try to avoid in a person.

I stare hard at the flapping windshield wipers until the light turns green. “Green,” I pounce.

When Karl doesn't react, I point at the window. “The light. It's green.”

“Oh.” Karl gives my knee a squeeze, turns the Rage back up, and stomps on the gas. “Cool.”

Karl is oblivious to our immediate danger as he speeds toward his mother's house. “Oblivious” sums up Karl's role during most of our thirty-three-day stint as a couple. We are your basic girl-meet-rock-star story: met on a Friday night, at The Blue Room, where his band (Electric Hoagie) was making its debut. Most of the rock stars I date these days I meet in The Blue Room, a two-story bar/coffee shop in Philadelphia. Like me, the place is equal parts Philly and arty: the first floor has comfy
Friends
-style couches, giant cups and frothing lattes, while the bar upstairs is presided over by battered dartboards, black light, and a beer-gutted bouncer named Ron who smells like fried steak. By the back wall of the bar squats a scuffed plywood stage.

As the Hoagies tuned up, I studied Karl the Bass Guitarist. Physically, he was dateable. Mid-to late-twenties, thin but toned, reddish crewcut, sharp blue eyes, two gold hoops in his left lobe, one in his right brow, shadow of scruff from jaw to chin. He was wearing army shorts shredded at the bottoms and a black T-shirt that said TRY ME.

Mid-set, I caught his eye as he screamed lyrics inches from the mic.

Post-set, he found me lingering deliberately near the bar.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

From there, it was pretty much textbook: a) I complimented the band, b) he bought me a beer, c) we found a pockmarked booth where we gulped our drinks and talked music and life and suffering-as-art while the blacklight made his teeth and eye whites shine like minnows in a tank, and d) we went back to his pad—even used the term “pad”—a basement apartment with shag rug, lava lamp, surly cactus.

“You're beautiful,” he said, voice thick with Bud Light.

“Thanks.”

“No. I mean it.”

“So do I.”

He ran one calloused fingertip down the side of my face. “I could really get into knowing you,” he murmured, and looked deep into my eyes.

Deep.

Since making his first move, Karl's role in our relationship has not been too proactive. What we do and when we do it has been left largely up to me. I'm like the Events Coordinator—dialing movie theaters, reserving concert tickets, cooking my famous tuna casserole—while Karl watches what transpires between us as if it's happening of its own accord. Sometimes, when he looks up from plucking his guitar, he'll squint his eyes and bob his head as if absorbing my tiny apartment for the first time: the table set for two, beanbag chairs, melting candles, VH1's
Rock Across America,
a fat cat. Me.

Karl is thumping the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. It's raining hard now. The car feels like a sauna.

He nods out the window, then says something I can't make out.

“What?” I yell over the music.

“Main”—he mouths exaggeratedly—
“drag.”

It's one of the saddest main drags I've ever seen. The awning above the strip of stores reminds me of a giant dish towel, long, limp, and dripping. Underneath it, the store windows are crowded with merchandise found only in closets and garages, paper products and cleaning products and lawn ornaments shaped like tulips and ducks.

“Quaint,” I reply.

I should clarify: this trip to meet Karl's mother does not have any deep significance. It was not planned in advance to further our relationship or symbolize our growth or affirm our commitment or any of the things Hannah (my best friend) and Alan (her “partner”) always seem to be doing. It was a plan born of boredom: a rainy Sunday in June, and Karl's sudden recollection that his mother had things for him to pick up at the house.

Which doesn't surprise me. In my experience, rock stars' mothers are the most coddling mothers around, the type who like to feed and pinch and dress their sons even when they're over thirty. It leads me to suspect that most rock stars were mamas' boys growing up. That their entire musical careers might, in fact, be delayed rebellions for the overprotection they endured as boys.

But look closely, and you'll discover most rock stars are still mamas' boys at heart. Check inside their fridges: tinfoiled frozen lasagnas, homemade chicken soup, crustless egg salad sandwiches. Bathroom cabinets: cartoon Band-Aids, Flintstones vitamins, bottles of cherry-flavored cold medicine. In public, they might use the meds for recreation, swigging them for a preshow buzz. But I've found that, in reality, most rock stars are nothing like they seem.

 

I imagine it's something like the way other women are drawn to athletic men. Or outdoorsy, spiritual men. Men who make fruit shakes and have firm soccer calves. Men with blond childbearing genes and conservative mutual funds. Mine sounds like a ridiculous preoccupation, I realize, one that any literate, college-educated woman should have outgrown by age twenty-six. And, in most areas of my life, I am open to new experiences. I've tried roller blading and tae bo. I ate hummus, once. I read
The Beauty Myth,
twice. I recycle and vote. I borrowed Hannah's Buddhism books and, for ten days, practiced finding my center on the commuter rail.

Still, there is something about a rock star I want. I use the term “rock star” loosely, of course. They don't have to be actual stars (which is fortunate, since they never are). They don't even have to play rock music (though it's preferred). I've dabbled in classical, jazz, rap, even (briefly) show tunes. The reasons behind my infatuation are not entirely clear, even to me. It's not as simple as looking for a mate who likes white-water rafting or wants to raise the kids Catholic. It's more of a passion I'm looking for. A way of thinking deeply. Feeling deeply. Living against the grain.

Take Karl. His world consists largely of the space between his headphones, but I don't mind this inwardness about him; in fact, I kind of like it. It's intense, mysterious, slightly off the mark. It is nothing like Harv, my mother's second husband, a man who lives life from the smack-dab middle: a straight highway of credit cards and tip cards and Hollywood blockbusters, life as predictable as all-American pink pork cubes skewered along a kabob.

But despite my determination, rock stars invariably disappoint me. If it wasn't the bassist who wore tighty whities, it was the lead vocalist obsessed with Debbie Gibson, or the keyboardist who called me “dude.” Still, I remain convinced that the real thing is out there. By now it's evolved into a kind of quest: to find the rock star who doesn't disappoint. The one who fits the image. Who does the trick. Who earns every overused cliché and cheesy song title, who will single-handedly “love me tender” and “love me in an elevator” all night long.

“In other words, the one who probably doesn't exist,” Hannah mused. We were eating breakfast in Denny's at the time. This was about three months ago, four in the morning, twenty minutes after I'd leaped from the bed of my latest Blue Room find: a hard-rock drummer who'd asked me to stroke his feet to help him fall asleep.

“I think when you find the right man, his imperfections are the things you'll love about him most,” Hannah yawned. Her mind was awake, but the rest of her—pajamas, flip-flops, and curly, pillow-smashed red hair—was not. “They're the things that will surprise you about him. The things you never could have dreamed up.”

I'm sure she is right. Hannah is studying psychology. She has a loving family. She has a boyfriend who calls her “sweetheart” without irony. She is my oldest and dearest friend. Still, I didn't believe her for a second.

“Mmm hmm,” I murmured, chewing a bacon nub.

“Maybe it's fear,” she said, plucking a strawberry off the top of her fruit salad. Even at 4:00
A.M.
, Hannah is relentlessly healthy. “The way you tend to…terminate relationships. A manifestation of your fear of commitment.”

Believe it or not, Hannah actually talks like this. In her defense, she didn't always. When Hannah and I became friends in fifth grade, most of what we spoke was “Valley talk,” the short-lived lingo of “gnarlys” and “gag mes” that managed to infect even the suburbanest of suburban Philadelphia. That was the same year Hannah's family moved here from Minnesota, the year we discovered boys, demystified lockers, and started changing our clothes before gym. It was also the year my parents fought without stopping and I escaped to Hannah's house as often as I could.

From fifth grade onward, Hannah and I have become progressively more different. In high school, she headed cleanup drives while I memorized Van Halen lyrics. In college, she studied abroad in Africa and I pierced my nose. When she has a bad day, I recommend a Funyun; if I have a headache, she tells me to massage my navel. She's switched from coffee to herbal teas. She's given up meat and TV. She's feng shuied her apartment. She's fallen in love with Alan.

“It's not that I'm afraid of commitment,” I argued, chewing harshly. Hannah and I have a deal: she has permission to practice her psychology on me if I'm allowed to get irrationally upset and eat bacon. “I just want what I want. It's like my Nanny used to say, I'm fussy. I like my orange juice with pulp. I like my boyfriends with souls.”

I am fond of citing Nanny in moments like this one. My grandmother died about four years ago, and in retrospect has become my biggest fan. “Eliza plays the field,” she was fond of saying. And: “Eliza's a tough nut to crack.” These were compliments, I'm pretty sure. My mother, on the other hand, has made it her life's work to criticize me about anything and everything: piercing my nose, piercing my navel, wearing torn jeans in public, painting my bedroom black in high school, living in an “edgy” neighborhood of Philly (i.e., Manayunk, where there are boys with tattoos and modern art), and never managing to “stick with” boyfriends long enough.

“Maybe you just need to be a little more realistic,” Hannah was saying. She popped a grape in her mouth. “You hold men up to sort of, high, standards.”

I felt the familiar beginnings of a caffeine headache creep into my temples. For not the first time in my life, I found myself lamenting the fact that I couldn't have a best friend who gave advice like “screw the bastard,” a friend who took me out and bought me Jello shots, a friend who abandoned me in corners of bars with guys named Trey wearing Dockers and CK for Men.

“You mean, I have to settle,” I said.

“I mean, not all people will be as perfect as the ones you watch on TV. People have imperfections. They have moles. They have allergies. They have…mothers.” She paused and sneezed. Hannah is allergic to everything. “It's like when I first met Lily,” she said, blowing her nose on a napkin. “I felt this new intimacy with Alan. It was like I got to know him on another level.”

I stared her in the eye, trying to deny the pounding in my temples. “What if I don't want to know him on another level?”

 

The minute Karl's mother spots him on the porch she flings the door open, grabs his face in two hands and squeezes. His hard-lined, sharp-stubbled rock star's cheeks bulge into two prickled dinner rolls.

“Sweetie pie!” she says. Her tone has a nervy edge that reveals, clearly, Karl should have called first. “I didn't know you were coming! If you'd told me, I would have vacuumed! I would have swept! I would have bought cold cuts!” She spots me standing behind him. “And who's this?”

“That's Eliza.”

“Eliza!” says Mrs. Karl. Her tone has the kind of cheerful wariness with which all rock stars' mothers assess me at first, wondering which girl I will turn out to be: the one who will haul her son off to Baja in a cloud of funny-smelling smoke or the one who will manage to rein him in and get him mowing lawns and making babies. Mrs. Karl surveys me up and down: flared black jeans, gray T-shirt, nose ring, hair cut shoulder length and tucked behind my ears (“just don't wear it too short,” my mother is fond of saying, “men might think you're a lesbian”). I'm sure Karl's mother can tell I'm not wearing a bra.

BOOK: Getting Over Jack Wagner
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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