On the warm summer nights of the South, I sought comfort in his den after classes.
It was the last summer, right before life began. To prepare, I lifted a heavy load on my shoulders then: an acoustic guitar, all the way from class to his apartment. That’s it, I had decided, I was going to learn to play. It was the only living souvenir of college that I could carry with me for the rest of my life.
I practiced a little, but mostly it was he who played. And he played it so well. We smoked cigarettes in between songs, and the sun slowly fell behind the trees outside the big windows. After a few nights, I found courage and started to sing. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks each time. Singing in front of a stranger? Me? Finally? I couldn’t believe it.
With the sun tucked in under the earth at 10, we’d put down the guitar and walk downtown. There were so many shows every night, and young people flocking the town, lit against a black backdrop. And we took in the music with dollar cans of beer in our hands, smiles on our faces. We spoke French as we sat on a bench outside a bar sometimes, always in between songs. We knew we’d never use it again, but it made us feel good practicing, putting to use a skill we’d learned in school, as if we’d beat time to the real world that was edging toward us like a pair of inevitable headlights.
An older guy passed by one night as we spoke. His friend. “Where will you go?” he asked. Where was I going. New York, for one. That’s all I knew then. Who knew what I would do then. “She sings,” confessed my friend. She’s got a Tom Waits soprano voice.
Although I blushed, I never understood what that meant. Never leave it. I knew it was a good thing. And so I left it there — along with the guitar and my fantasy of singing in front of strangers — for years, as an old college memory.
It was Tom Waits himself who resurrected the memory, tonight. His raspy voice wrapped around my wine glass as I sat on the couch of DG’s basement apartment. I clutched a pillow and watched DG scramble for the right words. “I kinda get it,” he nodded, setting his own glass on the coffee table. A small pang shot inside me. He sat up, crossed his legs and scrunched his eyebrows in thought. “Your voice is a little deeper than other girls’ but very sweet, like a melody.”
That’s what I was missing all this time.