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.
I remember the night I met Michael Silver so well that it hurts. Wind was whipping against the windows of David’s mom’s house, rattling them. And it was cold outside, too cold for anything but a force of nature to be moving about. But traffic persisted nevertheless, horns honking, breaks squealing, cars skidding on the black ice and struggling to regain control. David and I sat in the comfort of his living room, the heat cranked up, and we strummed the chords to R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon”—me on lead, David on rhythm—trying to recapture the right combination of country twang and alternative strangeness from the original recording.
I sang, “Let’s play Twister. Let’s play risk.”
David added, “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.”
“I’ll see you in heaven if you make the list.”
“Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.”
The one part I couldn’t get, no matter how hard I tried, was the little bit were Stipe channels Elvis Presley on the vocals. First you sing, normally, “Now Andy, are you goofin’ on Elvis?” and then you’re supposed to imitate Elvis: “Hey baby!” and then quickly go back to normal with, “Are we losing touch?” I could never quite get the “Hey baby!” and I caught one of David’s grins out of the corner of my eye each time I tried.
His house always smelled funny. David’s mom never cooked for her son, but for their dog, a pitch-black ball of fat and fur that barked at walls, she would warm exotically spiced bones that stunk up the whole place. David was cooking French fries and fish sticks in that same oven now. He’d offered me some, but I had politely declined. Something about cooking human food in the same oven that you heated dog bones in—something about that didn’t sit well with me.
The oven timer went off and, while I finished playing “Man on the Moon,” David put his guitar aside and headed for the kitchen. As I worked through the last refrain, he returned, his food on a paper plate. He sat on the floor, by the coffee table, and sprinkled the fish and fries with liberal amounts of salt and pepper. When I was through with the song, he clapped, and once he’d chewed away the mouthful of food that filled his maw, he proceeded with the compliments.
“As ever, that was amazing,” he said. “I hope my playing didn’t screw you up.”
“You were fine,” I assured him. “You always do fine. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”
He blushed. “Well,” he said, “I appreciate that. I know you’re lying, but I appreciate the deceit.”
I smiled at him as I set my guitar back in its hard plastic case. “When’s your friend supposed to get here?”
David rubbed the grease off of his hands onto a paper towel. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out his gold pocket watch, something we’d picked up on a trip together into Boston. I remembered all the trouble he’d gone through to get us there. I was still two to three months shy of getting my license, and he was a full year from getting his. We’d had to have his grandparents drive us to the train station in Lowell, cramped into a backseat already full with an archaic baby seat that hadn’t been used since David was a child. It was at the Faneuil Hall marketplace that we found the watch. After stuffing ourselves on samples from the eateries that lined the main hall—a piece of pizza here, some chowder there, a cookie from the Boston Chipyard to finish us off—we found ourselves meandering past the little carts in the glass-enclosed side hall. And that’s when we spotted it. The watch looked more expensive than it was, of course, but even that was too expensive for two high school kids. David always had money on him, though. There seemed to be a silent agreement between him and his mother—she could neglect him completely and totally, so long as she understood and did not complain when he rifled through her purse for his per diem. And so, that was that. He bought the watch.
David flipped it open, flipped it closed again, and then put it away. “He should be here any minute,” he said. But he looked nervous. There was a concert to go to that night, and his friend was our ride. David stood, picked up his plate, and ate while he paced.
“Do I look alright?” he asked.
I gave him a once-over and, finding his outfit, on the whole, to be standard-issue slacker—blue jeans, concert tee, red and white Chucks—I gave him a nod. “But what’s with the smoking jacket?”
He shrugged. “You don’t think it goes?”
I shook my head. “Nah, man. It goes. It just… maybe it doesn’t go to a Nine Inch Nails show.”
He stopped in his tracks and set his plate down on the arm of the couch, stalking off toward the bathroom.
I looked down at his plate and saw something amiss. “There’s no ketchup,” I pointed out.
“Ketchup is unnatural,” he said, coming back, taking off the jacket. “Tomatoes in a bottle? Does that seem right to you?”
I don’t think I would’ve been able to eat what he was eating without drenching it in some condiment, but I nodded along as if I understood.
Suddenly, there were four quick knocks upon the heavy wooden door. The dog began to yelp with all of the might that it could muster in its tiny little lungs, and the pooch’s outburst was the straw that broke poor David’s back. He huffed as he stood to get the door. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t just come in. I’ve told him a thousand times.”
While his back was to me, I reached across the table to pluck a fry from his plate. It was so soggy and disgusting that I might not have finished it if it weren’t for the fact that I had no place to hide the evidence. I chewed quickly, swallowed, and reached for my Diet Coke.
At the door, David groaned, saying to the as-yet-unseen friend, “I don’t understand why you don’t just come in.”
The boy shrugged as he followed David into the living room. Though I was sure I had seen him in the halls once or twice, I had never gotten a really good look at Mister Michael Silver until that afternoon. I stood to greet him and shook his hand.
He was the best kind of handsome: the kind that doesn’t know it yet and maybe never will. His longish brown hair was unkempt, and he had missed a spot shaving just under his chin, but he had haunting hazel eyes and a wide smile to make up for it. He could’ve used a little help dressing himself—there were paint stains here and there on his jeans and a small tear near the bottom of his faded t-shirt—but that was part of the charm.
I tugged at the tiny padlock that hung from my chain-link choker. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
David nodded. “He used to play AD&D with Adam and Ashley and me, down at the comic book store. You might have seen him there.”
“Wait,” I said, in recognition of his sister’s name. “Ashley Silver?”
“That’s my sister,” said Michael.
Without really knowing why I was doing it, I slapped him on the shoulder. “I didn’t even know she had a brother. When she comes over to visit my brother, she never says a thing about you.”
“Well,” said Michael, “my parents have always told her that if she doesn’t have anything nice to say about someone, she shouldn’t say anything at all.”
I laughed, and for the second time in as many minutes I made some absurd gesture to get closer to him, bumping my hip into his side. “What could she possibly have to say about you that’s so bad?”
David clicked his pocket watch open, then shut it again, and right then, right then I should’ve known that it was all going to go to hell. You know those moments? That was one of those moments, the clicking shut of the watch like the closing of a door. “Time to go,” said David.
I slipped on my pea coat and picked up my guitar case, holding it up for Michael to see. “Could you drop me off after?”
He nodded and smiled. “Absolutely,” he said, as we headed outside, to the car.
“So, you play guitar?” Michael asked me.
“Yeah. You play?” I asked.
“No. I sing,” said Michael, unlocking and opening the rear door for me. “A little,” he added hastily.
I slid my guitar case into the backseat and, not yet ready to exchange his face for the back of his head, I rubbed his shoulder and said, “David and I are thinking of starting a band. You should be our singer.”
“Maybe,” said Michael, smiling. He turned to see what David thought, as did I, but David had already gotten into the passenger’s seat and turned up the radio. Michael nodded at me and said, “That might be fun.”
Michael drove a gray Ford Tempo, a four-door sedan that was falling apart in every way imaginable. There were lights illuminated on the dash that shouldn’t have been lit, and noises coming from places that should have been silent, but once we hit the road, and the music was going, we forgot about the problems. David manned the stereo, inserting tapes when necessary, fast-forwarding as needed. We all sang along.
And Michael could sing. He could really sing. His voice was heavy, and warm, and untrained, and when he hit a note he didn’t hit it because it was what he was taught to do. He hit that note because it felt right, because it felt good. He had a real man’s voice when he sang. It was sure, and true.
It was, honestly, the sexiest voice I’d ever heard.
I didn’t know where he came from though, because he wasn’t in band or chorus or even the theatre guild. He had never been seen in our hallway at the high school, had never even skirted the edges of our clique. I, like so many of my friends at the time, thought that I knew everyone in our school who had any musical talent whatsoever. Never in my life had I been more happy to be wrong.
To hear him sing, to hit the notes without even seeming to think about them, to get the emotion right—he had me. I wanted to know this guy. I wanted to be around him. And it was during the concert that I made my move.
It was few songs in when people began to leap over our heads. I watched one sweaty goth boy after another plummet down to the concrete floor below, each of them landing, like a cat, on their feet, then rushing past distracted security guards into the fray of the mosh pit. The security guards were trying to turn back the tide of young bodies driving, like a wedge, down from the upper level of the stadium, toward the floor. For a moment, when the march down the metal stairs had begun, I was shooting glances over at Michael, sort of a silent question: You want to try it? But he had looked over at David, who appeared petrified by the whole ordeal, and he had shaken his head with a small frown.
It didn’t help the situation that, over the driving drumbeat, the singer was goading the crowd, “Step right up! March! Push! Crawl right up on your knees!”
In front of us, the railings on either side of the steel staircase began to buckle. Lights flashed out across the audience as the music disappeared, save a simple piano line, and the singer’s pleading question, “Now, doesn’t it make you feel better?” Thousands of bodies writhed in time to the music as the lights went down again, the drumbeat heavy, driving, like an oncoming train.
I couldn’t help but stare at Michael as he sang along. He knew all the words. His face—contorted, crunched up, locked in a perpetual scream—seemed to betray a true understanding of each lyric. David sat in his corner, staring ahead at the stage, listening intently, but I could not sit back and let the music simply wash over me, as my friend was doing. I saw Michael and it was like he was part of the music, so when the opportunity presented itself, I sang with him, to him.
We screamed together, “Devils speak of the way in which she’ll manifest,” and Michael leaned back, as if the thick, slow crunch of the guitar was actually a physical force bending his body. “Angels bleed from the tainted touch of my caress,” we sang, our voices just two amongst a chorus of thousands. “Need to contaminate, to alleviate, this loneliness!” we sang, eyes forward, toward the stage. And then I grabbed hold of him by the shoulders and we sang to each other, “I now know the depths I reach are limitless.”
Years later, upon learning of my indiscretions with redheaded jazz drummer I’d met while studying at Berklee, Michael would quote from the same song in an email written to break off our relationship. Older, and perhaps a little wiser, he would still be compelled to use the vocabulary of our youth. The time would come when all I was to him was the beautiful liar, the precious whore of this bitter, vengeful song. And perhaps I should have known, with the way that we started, that I would never be the girl in the white dress for him, standing by the ocean, proclaiming my love as tears trickled down over the precipice of my fat lashes. Perhaps I should have known that I was not that girl, that that girl was still to come for him. And knowing that, perhaps I shouldn’t have done what I did the night of the concert. Perhaps I shouldn’t have thrown away what I already had.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps! If two roads diverged in a wood that I was traveling through, isn’t it apparent now, so sickeningly apparent, which one would I choose?
I stood with Michael outside the men’s room after that show, waiting for David. My overworked ear drums throbbed with a dull, familiar ache, while I watched this boy, more limited in his concert-going experience, rub at his Adam’s apple. His hair was matted with sweat, his t-shirt clinging to his soft, unthreatening frame as he hunched over to catch his breath.
“Good show, huh?” I asked him.
He nodded and smiled, looking at me only briefly before casting his eyes back down upon the floor, determined not to play Judas. If only both of us had been so determined.
“They play everything you wanted to hear?” I asked.
“I was hoping they’d do ‘Heresy.’ It’s become my, sort-of… I don’t know… my anthem.”
I grinned. “God is dead, huh?”
“I don’t even know if that’s what he’s saying in the song, though. I think it’s more about why God sucks. You know, ‘he flexed his muscles, to keep his flock of sheep in line. He made a virus, that would kill off all the swine.’ And, of course, you know, the ‘perfect kingdom of suffering and pain’ part… I don’t think he really believes God is dead. I think he’s just saying that to piss God off.”
I nodded along. “I get it,” I said, drawing closer. “You’re really into it. I like that.”
“My grandfather passed away last spring,” he said, his voice soft and raspy, barely audible above the din of the departing crowds. “I guess that’s when I started to connect with all the lyrics, all the words about loss and anger and stuff.” He paused and rubbed his throat again, coughing a little.
I leaned toward him, tilting my head, and pressed my lips against the spot where he’d been rubbing. His stubble prickled against my face and sent shivers down to the tips of my toes. I wanted to wrap myself up in him and it was with great reluctance that I pulled away, rubbing a hand along his arm, asking him, “All better?”
His eyes were open, but they weren’t on me. From behind us I heard the voice I had begun to dread. Donning a deeper, more masculine tone, unashamed of the artifice of it all, David asked Michael, “Can we go? Robin and I both have a French test tomorrow.”
Michael nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
For a while, the tension worked. Like Fleetwood Mac, whose song “Go Your Own Way” would become one of our band’s staples, we fed off of the discontent. Too dignified to have out-and-out rows with each other in normal conversation, we left our most bitter barbs for our songs where, supposedly veiled, we were supposed to judge them only on their merit as songs. And it wasn’t as hard as you’d imagine. When Michael and I sang harmonies on David’s “A Toast to the Duplicitous,” with it’s nods to The Cars’ ‘Best Friend’s Girl’ and the Beatles ‘Rocky Raccoon,’ the composition was so strong, the vocals so warm and lush, that it was easy to become lost in the music, to forget that Michael was the rival whose legs were to be shot off.
Yes, for a while it worked. For a while, David held himself back. He glared at us—oh, how he glared—and he made snide remarks under his breath, but the music was something special. He knew what we were doing was quite beyond high school standards, that if he gave it time he could parlay it into future success. But the puppeteer will only suffer the willful insubordination of his marionettes for so long. David was no Geppetto. Sing to him of your newfound freedom—I’ve got no strings, and so on—and you would not be likely to find a smile upon his face.
On the eve of our band’s dissolution, we were to be found, as was so often the case in our misspent youth, within the confines of Michael’s Ford Tempo. We sat in our usual configuration, David up front and me in the back—an inconvenient arrangement we had thus far conceded to David in an attempt to keep the peace. Despite his complaints of a headache, David had cranked the stereo. And I was doing my best not to groan at the playlist he’d prepared for us: a healthy dose of the mopiest Cure and Smiths songs he could find.
A couple of miles down the road from the Friendly’s where we’d stopped for dinner, I started pushing my knee into the back of Michael’s seat. And when that didn’t get his attention, I started kicking it, losing my shoes in the process. The music was loud enough to mask the sound of my attack but, finally, not the feel of it. With his right hand on the wheel, Michael reached his left hand back through the crevice between the door and his seat and grabbed for my foot.
I kicked his hand away. When he relented, I pushed my knees into the back of his seat again. The second time he reached his hand back I let him grab hold of my ankle. David continued to sing along with the music but Michael had fallen silent. He held my foot and I felt his hand grow warm. With my other foot, I rubbed the top of his hand.
When we reached the Drum Hill rotary I thought to let him go, but he held on even tighter. With only his right hand on the wheel, he navigated the circular stretch of road. He missed our turn-off and kept going. David kept singing.
We were headed toward my house when the tape that was playing finished. As David fished around the front seat for another, I said, “I’m not ready to go home yet.”
“Well, I, uhm, I’m tired,” said David.
“Then we can drop you off first,” I suggested. “I know that’s breaking tradition and all, but… Michael, would you mind dropping David off first?”
“No. I, uh… Do you mind?” he asked David.
“No. Sure. It’s fine.”
When we reached his house, David got out of the car without a word to us and began his way up the stairs. I unbuckled my seatbelt and walked round the back of the car.
David turned and said to me, “He’s flighty, you know. Can’t keep focused on any one thing for too long. He left painting behind for the band. What’s to say—”
I cut him off. “And what does that have to do with he and I?”
David smirked. “When he’s off at college, what makes you think he’s faithful?”
“He’s a good guy, David.”
He shivered in the unseasonable cold, pulling his smoking jacket tighter around himself, unaware, even now, of how he would be wishing for just a moment of this chill the next day, when the warm front came through. “Yeah, he’s a good guy. And you’re a good girl, too. Faithful friends, the both of you.” He grunted, stepping in through his front door. “Have fun parking, or whatever it is you call what you two do.”
In hindsight, I would’ve pulled out of practice the next day. I should have. With things as hot as they were, nothing good ever could have come of it. But I went anyway, because I was convinced that we could make it through it, that we had to.
And in hindsight I’m sure that David, upon reading that headline ten years hence, confirming that I had, in fact, met an end fitting of the man he’d once compared me to—I’m sure that even David would feel a tinge of regret for the words he’d uttered in haste. I’m sure that when he saw the headline—Local singer shot dead—that he too would have wished for a chance to do it all over again.
As the story goes, John Lennon met Yoko Ono on a visit to an exhibition of hers in London in 1966. Taken with the aesthetic and interactive nature of her work, which included a decomposing apple and an instruction to hammer a nail into a chunk of wood, Lennon’s most famous anecdote regarding the exhibit related his experience of climbing a ladder to find the word ‘Yes’ written on the ceiling. In later interviews, he said that it was this one word that gave him cause to continue. If it had been ‘No’ written up there, he claimed, he would have walked straight out. But since it was ‘Yes’, since the message was one of positivity and, to his mind, possibility, he stayed; he continued on.
If I really were John, and Michael were Yoko, then I found myself wondering what word Michael would have written on the ceiling. And the thing is, I don’t think it would have been yes, and I don’t think it would have been no. I’m almost certain that it would have been maybe, because yes and no are black and white. They’re absolutes, and as David was apt to point out, given even the smallest occasion to do so, Michael was unaware of absolutes. He lacked dedication, commitment, and focus. But maybe, that most entropic of words—Michael’s word—is where possibility truly lies.