Robin: The Word on the Ceiling
The last time I saw David alive, he said something to me that made me want to kill him. I didn’t kill him, of course. But, oh, the murderous thoughts of a jaded teenage girl. When you’re young, and nubile, and death is like some story your grandparents tell, like walking uphill to school both ways in the driving snow, or like glass bottles of fresh milk waiting on the doorstep by the dawn’s early light—well then, when death is something like that, something that will never happen to you, then you’ll wish it upon anyone, won’t you? For even the most innocent trespass.
Ah, trespasses. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. My father’s words ring in my ears, and I remember him kneeling by my bedside until I got it right, until I did it without the lisp. Me in my white nightdress, my naked arms beet-red with shame, and he in his flannel pajamas, reeking wonderfully of clove cigarettes. Oh, his valiant effort to stamp out my sibilant S! Daddy, if you were here today, you would see it in my eyes—I tried to forgive him; I really did. But you didn’t see the way he looked at me when he said it, like some kind of scavenger, hoarding away the pieces of me that would be useful for a song, or a poem, and casting aside the rest of me like so much gristle.
“You know, you guys are turning into John and Yoko,” he hissed at me as I hoisted my amp into the trunk of my car.
“That’s not fair,” I said, turning to face him, scowling, “I helped you start this band.”
“I know,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow, squinting in the July sun. “You’re John. He’s Yoko.”
He stalked off, rounding the corner of the chain-link fence that surrounded his house, slipping in through the side gate, and then latching it behind himself.
“I QUIT!” I shouted. But he didn’t look back. David, for all his histrionics regarding the ascension of Michael and me to the forefront of the band, was still our leader, our conductor. And he had orchestrated this whole scene. He didn’t need to look back at me. He didn’t need to listen. He wouldn’t need to listen later that night either, when Michael called him to scream his own resignation and to end their lifelong friendship with a litany of four letter words. The codas of David Johnson’s compositions never strayed far from the notes on the page.
For a time, it had been an admirable quality, David’s mastery over the situation at hand. I can recall, with misty eyes, that night, all those years ago, when David massaged my shoulders in the darkened hallway behind our school’s auditorium. Behind us, on stage, the orchestra was running through the theme from Schindler’s List. My ex-boyfriend—that dreaded prefix a wound still fresh—was the first-chair violin, and I was listening intently to each of his solos, waiting for him to hit that one bad note that would give me some sense of closure, speaking aloud, “Damn,” at the end of each line he ran through without flaw.
Around us, other kids milled about, also waiting to return to the stage, speaking in breathy whispers to one another. I closed my eyes as David’s fingers worked at the knots in my neck. He asked me how it felt and all I could manage was a heavy sigh.
“Robin,” David said to me, as his fingers kneaded down my back, “you need to calm down. He’s not going to screw up. I mean, for every knot I get out, two more pop up in its place.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said, finding a spot in my lower back more twisted up than anything he’d already worked on. “Just be happy.”
I let out a loud, low moan—almost guttural—that I hadn’t expected. People in the crowd that wandered about us stopped their own conversations and stared at me, at us, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care, couldn’t care, about anything in the world. David had found that part of me that no boyfriend had ever dared to venture near. But he was unafraid. He knew what must be done, and he did it. It was the way of his life—he went for what he wanted. With one notable exception, of course, and that was me.
The rumor mill at our high school, like the great mills of the last century, whose hulking brick husks still dotted the banks of the nearby Merrimack River, cast the shadow of an overbearing juggernaut over the student body. Run at the top by rich, untouchable WASPs, it was efficient and often deadly (at least to the reputation) for those who lingered too close to the machinery of the thing. And David was one of its favorite victims.
Thin of frame and pale as Stoker’s Transylvanian Count, David was cursed with all of the features that the real vampires of our world—the social vampires, that is—craved in their victims. Soft-spoken, with a quasi-falsetto, and a sibilant S his own father hadn’t cared to correct, he was also possessed of the limp wrists and bitchy demeanor of the omnipresent queenish caricature that dominated our popular culture. And the girls like me, who clung to him in the hallways, offered no proof of innocence. No, we were fag-hags, a word often found on the lips of cheerleaders and preppy girls, but one never spoken aloud.
It was because of this rumor mill and because of the fact that some of our friends and acquaintances had actually begun to believe it, that David could never bring himself to approach me in the way that a friend of his soon would.
“I’m not dating any more musicians,” I promised him, as we filed onto the stage that night for our own performance, me with my clarinet and he with his sax. And all that he could muster, when most boys in his position would have at least made some pronouncement that not all musicians were bad, that he, at the very least, was not like that—all that he could muster was a smirk across his bright pouty lips, a pat on my shoulder, and the words, “Yes, maybe that’s for the best.”
It was around then that David and I had decided to start a band of our own. “The Smashing Pumpkins on woodwinds?” I had teased him, before he clarified his intentions for he and I to play rhythm and lead guitar respectively. A portly friend of his from Scout camp, Billy Mills, would play the drums. And there was a bass-playing biker who hung out at the comic book store where David worked, a guy who’d been telling David for months to name the time and place for a jam. We were all set with our little four-piece. David and I would take turns singing. It was going to be brilliant. And then came a most unexpected development.