Edited for quality 5.17.11
Tonic: the first note of a scale
When I complained of being bored for the millionth time, he said that maybe I should write a memoir. A lot of musicians do that, and, well, I'm thinking it'll be kind of...fun...to relive the memories. To see how I ended up here.Happy. With the love of my life.
But that all comes later. If I'm going to start anywhere, I'll start the day I got that phone call.
It all began in Denver, Colorado.
Damn you Murphy; your law has been fucking with my life for way too long.
Such were my thoughts as I stood on the sidewalk looking at the burnt wreckage that had been my place of employment. Tim—my now-ex-manager—had called to tell me the pub had fallen victim to a freak electrical fire, but it wasn't real to me until I braved the blustery winter and walked down to see it for myself. Definitely burned.
And I was definitely jobless. Jobs were scarce—it was mid-January. The Christmas hiring rush was long past and, at the time, I'd had a reasonably secure job bar tending. Excluding the risk of freak electrical fires, naturally. It's always those freak accidents. Still, between paying off my student loans, groceries and…other expenses, I was just scraping by with enough to pay the rent. The little extra money I had was from playing in a small jazz ensemble…In the same bar I worked at. The smoldering pile of blackened... blackness.
But, Rome! You say, Why didn't you just go play in another bar? Because the three guys I played with—all brothers, for the record—went back to Chicago. Their mother was dying from cancer. I couldn't exactly blame them.
Which left me—the keyboardist. Jazz piano's not much on its own, and I didn't know of any pubs interested in classical. So, there I was, with the bills rapidly approaching, and the roaches that lived in my apartment having more money than I did.
Shivering, I began the walk back to my dump of a home. I indulged in self-pity. I mean, I wasn't a bum. I was a smart kid—not top of my class or anything, but I'd graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA and kept just under that all through college. I worked hard, and generally took care of business. I played about six instruments—and I had been learning a seventh at the time I graduated. I wasn't a loser. But…there just wasn't much I could do with a BA in Philosophy. Hence the bar tending. I wasn't satisfied with that job, but it paid the bills, and again, what was a philosophy major supposed to do? Besides teach. And kids scared me. They scared me when I was a kid. My parents always called me an old soul—they said they could see that by the time I was two years old.
I just think I suffered from middle child syndrome. Minus the attention-seeking. I'd never tried to bring attention to myself. That was, I thought as I approached my apartment building, the reason I had managed to survive there for over a year. I walked up the stairs—the elevator had been broken since it was installed—dodging empty and or smashed beer bottles, disgusting puddles of who-knows-what, unconscious people (drugs, alcohol, both, I even don't know), and one very terrifying middle-aged man who was just standing on a landing, and gave me this evil look as I walked past him.
It wasn't the best place to live…And that was the understatement of the millennium. If I didn't keep my head down and my business to myself, I'd probably have gotten myself killed, there. I mean…look at me. I'm small, scrawny, I have a funny name, I wear glasses, I'm white, and I'm gay. Although they don't know about the last part. I never had a boyfriend at the time I lived in that apartment. I hadn't had one since I was twenty-one, actually. About a year before I moved into what I not-so-fondly called The Shithole.
I got to the top floor and went to my door, number 3-blank spot-7. The "0" in the middle was gone before I ever moved in, but the relatively clean imprint against the door's general dinginess made it easy enough to read.
I unlocked it and let myself in, switching the lights on and listening to the roaches scatter, shuddering. I was terrified of roaches—or, I had been before moving to The Shithole. I kind of had to learn to deal with them, there. But I was never exactly comfortable with my insect roommates.
I shrugged off my coat and threw it over a stool, going immediately to the bathroom, opening the medicine cabinet and pulling out four prescription bottles. It was technically a few hours before I was supposed to take my meds—the biggest drain on my income, by far—but I wasn't feeling exactly stable at that moment. I opened the first bottle—for depression and anxiety. The second—for chronic headaches and insomnia. The third—for bipolar disorder. And the fourth—for obsessive compulsive disorder.
Yeah, I was more than a little messed up. But the pills, wonders of science that they were, kept me a relatively normal and functioning member of society. I placed them on my tongue, cupped my hands under the running sink, took a gulp and swallowed. They left a familiar bitter aftertaste, as always. I grimaced, as always.
I noted with worry that I was running dangerously low, and I didn't have the money for refills. I couldn't go without—I'd have to ask my parents to lend me enough. I hated asking my parents for anything. I had two siblings, an older sister with two kids of her own, and a younger brother who was a senior in high school at the time. Mom and dad put London and me through college, and they had a fund for Paris. They had done more than enough for me financially. But…when I went without my meds, it wasn't good. The first sign would be a god-awful headache…then the manic-depressiveness setting in. Literally minute to minute I'd be spastic or completely down. Then I'd start obsessively doing things—washing my hands, picking at my nails, folding pieces of paper, that kind of thing. By that point I usually realized what was going on and forced myself to stop being OCD—in the most literal sense—and go take my pills. I'm sure if I went much longer without, I'd get all suicidal or something. I can honestly say that I've never wanted to or tried to commit suicide. Then again, I can't remember a time when I wasn't heavily medicated. Also, I'm a coward.
Realizing that I had been staring at my reflection in the speckled mirror with a look akin to disgust for several minutes, I shook my head to snap out of it, and headed back into the sitting room-kitchen area…just as the cell phone (yet another thing that I wouldn't be able to pay for this month) in my jacket pocket began beeping shrilly.
I didn't have a landline—my cell phone was listed in the phonebooks as my home number, which led to an exorbitant amount of telemarketers calling it. So, naturally enough, I didn't usually answer calls from numbers I didn't recognize. I'm not sure what possessed me to answer that call—but I'm glad as hell that I did.
"Hello," I said, flipping the prehistoric cell phone open.
"Rome France?" A male voice asked.
"That's me," I answered vaguely, waiting for him to introduce himself and whatever he was selling.
"Thank god!" The voice exclaimed, "Do you have any idea how difficult you are to contact?"
"Um, I can imagine, but I'd also undoubtedly appreciate your trouble more if you tell me who's calling?"
"Oh! Sorry about that. It's OctoberWest. From high school? Remember me?" The voice said, and my eyebrows threatened to disappear into my hairline.
"For real? The October West that was in jazz band with me for three years? The October West who won So You Wanna be a Star two years ago? Dude, you're famous. Will you sign my socks so I can sell them on EBay and possibly be able to pay my rent?" I sent the barrage of questions one after the other. I tended to ramble when I was in an uncomfortable situation. I distinctly left unspoken the 'Why the hell are you calling me?'
"Yes, that October West. I see your sense of humor hasn't changed," he remarked dryly.
"No, it's changed. It's much more bitter, now. I kind of have a useless college degree, and no job," I said, intending to sound frivolous, but instead it turned out caustic. I didn't have a clue why I was unloading on a guy I hadn't seen in five years like that. I guess it was a little more sane than ranting to myself.
"Oh—uhh. Wow. That sucks, dude."
The silence had a change to grow awkward before I brightly asked, "So, what's the occasion? Jazz band nostalgia?"
October chuckled, his breath making the phone grow staticky for a moment. "Well, that's how it started. This is gonna seem really weird and sudden, but I have a proposition for you."
"Shoot," I commanded, and added, "It's not like you can make my day much worse."
"Hopefully you'll take this as good news," October said cryptically. I heard him inhale. "So, I was bound by contract to the company that sponsors So You Wanna for a year, and I released that god-awful solo album. I have now torn up their contract, and I'm currently indie. What I want to do is start a band, and get signed by someone who's not going to control every aspect of my life."
I mulled the information over, and asked the inevitable question. "Okay, that's cool. But…why are you telling me this?"
He took another deep breath. "Rome, I have distinct memories of you being a brilliant keyboardist. I know I haven't seen you in, what over four years? But…do you think you'd be interested in joining?"
I laughed out loud and began looking around my apartment for cameras. "Okay," I said at length, "Where are the cameras hidden. I'm being punk'd or something."
"No, no, I'm quite serious. When I got this crazy idea in my head to start a band, I kept think of possible members, guitarists and drummers, and bassists, but somehow I kept thinking I needed something different, classy. So then I thought piano. But then I thought, crap, October, you don't know any pianists. And then I thought, wait, Rome from high school. And I know it's a long shot calling you out of the blue like this, especially since I don't even know if you still play, but if you're even a little bit interested… I'll definitely give you some time to think it over. I won't be offended in the least if you decide not to join—"
"I'll do it," I found myself saying, slightly surprised. His ramble cut off immediately.
"You will?" He sounded thrilled.
"Yeah," I answered, still feeling like it was an out-of-body experience, "I really don't have anything going on for me right now. I could leave tomorrow and no one would miss me."
The following silence was more thoughtful than awkward. "Great. That's—that's excellent, Rome. I won't make you leave tomorrow or anything, but I've already got the other members of the band scheduled to meet two weeks from now in a lodge in New Mexico."
New Mexico? I winced. There was no way that I could get there…A plane ticket was so far out of my price range that it wasn't even funny, and I didn't have a car. God damn it, I hated asking for help.
"That's fine," I said breezily, "Except that I don't really have a means of transportation to New Mexico. Dirt poor and jobless, you know," The last part was apologetic.
"Oh, that's not a problem at all. You're living in Denver, correct?"
"I'll swing through on my way south and pick you up. I'm interviewing possible managers in Nevada, at the moment," he said.
"Fancy," I drawled sarcastically, then more kindly, "Found anyone?"
"A couple look promising, but we'll have plenty of time to talk logistics on the way to the lodge. I'll give you time to wrap things up in Denver. How's next Wednesday? For moving out and all?"
I considered for a moment, and remembered that that Wednesday was when the rent was due, and that I was terrified of my landlady. "Actually, my rent is due in three days and I can't afford it. How's the day after tomorrow?" I asked.
October began to laugh, apparently then thought it was insensitive, and cut it off with a strangled sound. "I can do that. But I'll have to make some calls—talk to you later today?"
"Sounds great. As long as Verizon doesn't decide to cut off my minutes for not paying the bill," I said in another pathetic attempt at humor. I was good for…at least another week or so on the phone bill.
"Okay…" October said distractedly. "See you then. Thanks a million for doing this, Rome."
"No problem," I replied, "Talk to you later."
I shooed the lone roach off my ratty couch and flopped down, hearing the springs protest the indignity. Slowly, I settled back into myself, and tried to make sense of everything that had just happened. That conversation felt like how, back in high school, you talked about starting a band, playing together with guitars and drums for an hour or two, and then never making anything of it. Except that it wasn't anything like that, because I was just on the phone with October West. Yeah, my friend from high school, but more commonly known as an international music phenomenon. There was nothing to dislike about him—he was almost offensively nice, a fantastic singer, and damn fine in the physical department as well.
Somehow the implications of everything didn't hit me until that moment. I had just joined a rock band. A rock band. I was a philosophy major. A classical musician philosophy major. People like me weren't in rock bands. Rockers were… grungy…and lacking high school degrees, much less college. I was clean-cut, clean shaven…I wore glasses. I was the opposite of the rock stereotype. And I had just joined a fucking rock band.
What the hell had I gotten myself into this time?
Author's Notes: So You Wanna Be A Star is my cheap ripoff of American Idol. The name is a combination of So You Think You Can Dance and Star Search. Just…in case you couldn't tell I made it up and started looking for it.