Chapter Sixteen: The Feint of Heart
In the cold confines of the station wagon, I waited. I was parked a block from First Baptist in the deserted parking lot of a used book store – the closest empty lot we could find. It was five o’clock. At a club, somewhere, the doors were opening and a band was probably throwing equipment around and doing sound-checks. At the same time, Alex was executing the plan that would get Nick out from under parental supervision. If it worked. I was nervous. Obviously.
I messed with the radio, adjusted my seat belt, and played half a dozen games of cell phone Tetris, but nothing was helping to get my mind off of the fact that all this action was going on, and all I could do was sit and wait.
Every second brought new scenarios to mind. Alex bails at the last minute. Alex gets a flat tire. Nick cracks under the pressure and admits everything to his parents. Nick’s dad sees right through the whole thing and ships him off to straight-ification camp. Nick meets Alex, they fall wildly in love, and cruise off in the van without me. God, why’d I suggest this? It was such a stupid plan! And for what? A concert? What was I thinking?
I tried to convince myself that it was worth it. Nick, tasting the freedom of the mosh pit, the support of strangers, the feeling of community and individuality combined that I had felt at my first concert with Alex. I wanted Nick to smile widely in exhaustion and feel his concerns fall to the floor to be crushed under the stomping, bouncing soles of a whole crowd of allies in the fight against his prison guards, my scientists. That was what this trip was about.
An eternity or five minutes later, I saw Alex’s van pull around the corner and slowly, slowly make its way into the parking space next to mine. His door was open and his feet were on the ground the instant his eight-cylinder behemoth rolled to a stop. His eyes were wide with excitement and he bounced with each step. I jumped out of the wagon to meet him.
“Well?” I tried to see if Nick was in the van, but couldn’t see through the tinted windows.
“You should’ve seen it.” Alex said, smiling widely. “I…am a genius. I know I’m usually modest and everything, but there’s no other word for it. I’m a genius, Bran, and I’m using my considerable talent to help you. Be thankful.”
“So, it worked?”
“I mean, with skills like mine, I could be out there fighting crime. Or committing crimes. Yeah, committing, probably. And yet, I chose to help you.”
“There were doubters, yes! They looked at me and said ‘You? Scam Brimstone fucking Patton? Kid, your hubris will be your downfall.’ But did I listen? No!”
I caught his arm halfway through his triumphant sweeping gesture. “Okay, so I’m guessing it went well.”
“Bran, it was a thing of beauty. My performance…Brimstone didn’t stand a chance. If this whole bassist thing doesn’t work out, I could be an actor.”
“So where’s Nick?”
“In the van, changing out of his churchy clothes.” Alex said. “Though, I think all he has are churchy clothes, so I let him borrow some pants and a hoodie.”
“An offensive hoodie?”
“What do you take me for? C’mon. I’m wearing my offensive hoodie.” He turned to show me the back of his shirt. It was, in fact, quite offensive. “Got this one at a Leftover Crack show. But I didn’t think it’d be his style.”
“Good call. You, uh, weren’t wearing that when you were talking to the Reverend, were you?”
“No, man, I was in character. Now, since I went through all this trouble for you, risking life and limb and eternal soul in mortal discourse with Brimstone himself, you mind telling me what the deal is with this guy?”
“What do you mean?” I knew what he meant, of course. I was stalling.
“I mean, why’re you doing all this? This is a whole lot of trouble to go through just to go to a show. And a hell of a lot of deception, considering you’re the one who tried to kick my ass for being a little less-than-honest. So what’s the deal? Do you like him, or something?”
I laughed. Kind of. It came off more as a squeak than a nonchalant dismissal. Either way, I didn’t have time to qualify it, because the van’s door slammed and Nick walked around to meet us.
He was wearing one of Alex’s black hoodies and a pair of ragged jeans. It was the first time I’d seen him in, as Alex had put it, non-churchy clothes, and it was physically difficult to refrain from running my hands all over them (but don’t get me wrong – I would’ve felt the same way about his usual churchy-clothes, so long as he was in them). Nonetheless, I settled for simply smiling at him.
He looked even more nervous than I felt as he smiled back. We spent a few seconds like that before Alex broke the silence.
“Okay, then.” He said, rattling his keys. “You two are riding along with me, right?”
“I thought we were taking both cars.” I said. That had been the plan.
“And waste all that gas? Blast all that CO2 into the air, for no good reason?” Alex shook his head. “Not on my watch, punk. In the van.”
“I didn’t know you were an environmentalist.”
“Meh. I’m not doing it to be noble or anything. I’m only doing it to piss off my parents and George Bush. Which, as you’ve probably guessed, is the motivation for most of the stuff that I do.” He said, smirking.
I somewhat doubted that George Bush cared whether or not we carpooled, but I saw no reason to press the issue. I shrugged and headed for the van. I held the back door open for Nick before following him in. God, I was turning into a sap.
Alex took his place behind the wheel and called back to us. “What do you want to hear? I’ve got fast and angry, slow and angry, mid-tempo and angry, angry with time signature changes…and one rap album, which is surprisingly even-tempered.”
“Play ‘Swing Life Away’!” I said.
“Because I’ve got a guest in the van, and I don’t want him thinking I listen to wuss-rock.” Alex motioned to Nick.
“But…you listen to cuddlecore.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t know that. Besides, ‘Swing Life Away’ is too depressing.”
“I thought it was pretty hopeful.”
“It’s a wussy major-label acoustic radio ballad by what used to be a totally legitimate punk band. There’s nothing more depressing than that.”
“Just play it.”
Alex sighed. “Fine, fine. I’ll play your corporate blood-rock. But when your favorite band gets signed to an RIAA label and put on some kind of sold-only-on-TV compilation, don’t come crying to me, ‘cause I warned you. And!” He twisted, calling back over his shoulder, “I’m putting it on shuffle after this, and you have to sing along to the next song that comes on.”
I glanced over at Nick, who was holding back laughter, no doubt at the thought of my singing. I sighed. “Fine.”
“With the windows open.” He added.
“Aw, come on!”
“What? You never gave someone in the next lane the ol’ passenger-side serenade before? It’s all right, I’ll join you. And you can force the new guy back there into service, too, if you want.”
Alex plugged an FM transmitter into his supposedly stolen MP3 player and the soft strumming of Rise Against’s drippy acoustic ballad swelled through the speakers. While Alex’s eyes were on the road, mine were on Nick. He had a kind of dreamy expression as he listened to the soft, somewhat sappy love song, but there was something else behind it, too. Something I couldn’t quite recognize.
Then the song ended, and with a quick flick of his thumb, Alex hit a button that caused all the windows to open up. As the next song started, he cranked up the volume so that it could compete with the roar of the cold air. I recognized the song and started singing along with Alex before I realized what it was – “Church Hymn for the Condemned” by Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains. We stuck our heads out of our respective windows, raised our fists, and shouted along at the top of our lungs, “God isn’t dead, but I’ll get that bastard, someday!”
At that point, I happened to glance over at Nick, who was staring at me. But not in the way he usually did. Not in the way that I liked. His eyes spoke of confusion and nervousness. And he was looking at me.
I’d fallen silent, but Alex was still singing, “…If it’s where Falwell goes, then I don’t even want any part of Heaven…”
That made me think. Nick…he’d never told me that he’d given up on religion. He obviously wasn’t as hardcore about it as his parents, but still…now that I thought about it, he probably did still believe in god, at least a little. I didn’t have a problem with that, or anything, but I couldn’t help but think that singing along to a song that mocked his beliefs might not be making the best impression on him.
The song ended with a jovial shout of “Hail Satan!” and Alex twisted in his seat. “What’s the deal, man? This isn’t a solo act.”
“Eyes on the road.” I said.
He turned back around and clicked to the next song, leaving Nick staring at his hands, and me staring at Nick, silently. He didn’t look mad, just uncomfortable. Like he was having second thoughts about this whole trip.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He looked up. “Yeah. No problem.”
“Hey, sorry about that.”
“Forget it.” He shrugged.
“No, really, I didn’t realize-”
“Don’t worry about it, I said.” He cut me off. “I’m not going to, like, tell you what you can and can’t listen to.”
“I know. But...”
“Ay! What’s going on back there? A funeral?” Alex shouted from the front of the van. “You guys sound about as down as a piss fetishist with a nervous bladder!”
I couldn’t help it. The image that forced into my head…even with the dampened mood in the back, I had to laugh. I didn’t realize until later, in retrospect, that Nick hadn’t been laughing. Just looking, his wide eyes moving between me and the front of the van.
We arrived at the venue just before six. The bands still hadn’t started playing, but there were already crowds of people inside. At the door, Alex pulled out a wad of bills and paid for all three of us. Ever since he’d been outed as a “man of economic privilege”, he’d been doing stuff like that for all of his friends. We told him that he didn’t have to, but, hey, whatever makes him feel good is fine by me.
As the ticket guy stamped our hands, I watched Nick as he looked all around the room. There were neon signs advertising various brands of beer and cigarettes. In one corner, the merch tables were set up in the dim lighting, manned by guys and girls with dreadlocks and piercings and tattoos. They were intimidating to me, so I could only imagine how this whole thing looked to Nick. Still, we weren’t there to look at the merch tables. I tapped his shoulder and smiled at him when he turned around. He gave me a nervous grin in response.
Just then, a few feet in front of us, a guy with his shirt off hauled back and punched a guy with thick, black bangs in the gut. Black Bangs didn’t take kindly to that, so he swung at Shirtless’s face. Shirtless ducked under his swing and drove forward, smashing Black Bangs into a wall. Two security guys were on their way, slowly but surely pushing through the crowd. One of them went right between Nick and me, shoving us apart. It took me a few seconds to reorient myself and find him, at which point I grabbed his hand. Once again, an apprehensive expression had replaced his smile.
Alex grabbed my other hand and started pulling me (and, in turn, Nick) through the crowds and toward the stage. A girl with half of a shirt was on stage, noodling around on an electric guitar and shouting into the microphone. It was tough to hear her, but I thought I made out “One, two, three, four, mic check, what’s the score?” before she stepped back and the rest of her band took the stage. I felt Nick next to me, and hoped that he knew I was only staring at her half-exposed torso because I really liked the pirate ship tattoo that wrapped around her side, and not because I was secretly into girls or something.
As they started to play, those around us started to go into the familiar convulsions of pre-mosh sorting. We were feeling each other out, the crowd splitting into various groups. Those who wanted to be in the middle of the action were the most boisterous in their motions, and were migrating together as those not interested in dancing were moving out of their way. At the same time, a sort of barrier was forming – the perimeter people, as I thought of them – were taking up their positions along the edge of the pit, facing the dancers with their backs to the non-dancers. They would act as a protective shield, keeping the dancers inside from flying out and hurting those on the outside, as well as picking up anyone who lost their footing and pulling them to safety. These people were a mystery to me. Were they dancers taking breaks, switching shifts with others for turns inside the pit? Were they afraid of actually entering the fray, but still wanting to feel involved? Or did they just really like getting as close as you can get to being “the responsible ones” at a punk show? It was strange how there always seemed to be just enough of them to make the system work, too.
As I was attached to Alex, and Nick was attached to me, all three of us ended up right in the center of the movers and shakers. As the first song wound down and the second started, the sorting out was complete and the real fun began. We moved in seemingly random paths, bouncing off of each other, shoving and being shoved, jumping and spinning and slamming to an approximation of the beat.
Three songs had passed before I noticed that I had lost Nick. Alex had dropped my hand straight away, as soon as the music started, but I hadn’t noticed when Nick had let go of me. Or me of him. I wasn’t sure which it had been. I looked around, but given my height compared to the others, all I could see was that he wasn’t at my side any more. I tried jumping, using Alex’s shoulder as a launching point (at least, I think it was Alex’s), but those around me started jumping as well, thinking that I was just initiating a round of pogo-ing. It was no good.
I started to push through to see if Nick had moved to the edge, but as the music picked up, I found myself being tossed around once again. There was no way I was going to find him at this rate. I struggled through one more song, then gave up and let the crowd have its way with me. This band wasn’t resting between songs. I’d have to wait until they finished their set before I could search for Nick.
Judging by the clock on my phone, it was about forty-five minutes later when the performing band wrapped up. We cheered, offering our appreciation, and they chatted us up in return, commenting on how awesome Curson was (even though they were locals) and how we were great for giving them a chance and dancing even though they were just the opening act. I liked them, but right now, my mind was elsewhere. As the crowd started to dissipate, I looked around for Nick. Finally, I spotted him, sitting on one of the high stools by the bar, glass in hand. Just water, by the look of it, but I grinned, thinking about what his parents would say if they saw that particular image. I made my way over and climbed into the stool next to his, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Oh!” He spun around and faced me. “Hey!”
“Hey, yourself! Get lost in the crowd?”
He nodded. “Uh, yeah. People kept trying to push past me, so I kept letting them get past me, until I ended up over here.”
I laughed. “They weren’t trying to push past you, man, they were just trying to push you. You’re supposed to push them back.”
“Really?” He looked down at his water. “I thought I was in the way or something.”
“Heh.” I chuckled. “I guess I should’ve told you about that, huh? That’s the whole point – everybody knocks each other around, and there’s no hard feelings afterwards.”
“Oh.” He didn’t look convinced, so I kept going.
“It’s great! It’s like, for just a little while, all the rules about politeness and not fighting and personal space…you just forget them. It’s just...freedom! You get shoved into somebody, and that guy shoves you somewhere else, and everybody’s supporting everybody else so that no one gets hurt.”
“Oh.” He said, again.
As I thought back to my first time, I remembered that I hadn’t really gotten it at first, either. Alex had to basically drag me into it before I finally understood. When Nick finished his water, I grabbed him by the wrist. “Come on, stick with me this time and show you how.”
“Uh…I don’t know…”
“It’ll be fun, I promise!” I said. “There’s seriously nothing like it. After your first time, you’ll never want to stop.”
“Okay.” He nodded and jumped to his feet, shaking out his shoulders. “I guess it’s clobberin’ time, then.”
“That’s the spirit.” I said, as we pushed through to the front to wait for the next band to begin their set.
While we waited, I tried to explain to Nick what little I knew about the some of the different subcultures on display. I thought maybe it’d be less intimidating if he knew a bit more about the other people in the room. I pointed out a skinhead, a rude boy, and an emo scenester, and tried to explain the differences.
“So,” He nodded to the rude boy – a skinny blonde guy with a fedora and a checkerboard necktie – and then looked back to me. “You’re telling me he’s a Jamaican gangster?”
“No, no. He just likes music and fashion inspired by Jamaican gangsters.”
“And when the music starts, he’s going to start slutting?”
“Whatever. Is he going to?”
“Probably not. Usually, people only skank to ska, and I don’t think there are any ska bands, tonight.”
“It’s considered acceptable to skank to grime, too.” Alex said, joining us. He looked around. “This is where you were, huh?”
“Grime? You’re just making up genre names to throw me off, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Nah. Grime’s a real genre. Not my kinda thing, but definitely real.”
“So, wait.” Nick broke back in. “If impolite guys like ska-”
“That’s ‘rude boys’.” Alex said.
“Whatever. If rude boys like ska, and there’s no ska bands here, why is the rude boy here?”
“Uh…” I looked at Alex. “I…don’t know.”
“Look, just ‘cause he’s dressed like a rude boy doesn’t mean he only listens to ska.” Alex explained. “If you dress up for shows, you dress up like whatever subculture you identify with, not like whatever subgenre you’re going to see. If you did that, you’d be a poser.”
“So, what am I dressed like?” Nick asked, looking down at his borrowed clothes.
“You’re dressed like me.” Alex said.
“Yeah, but what are you?”
“I’m fuckin’ Alex.” He grinned. “Now shut up, the band’s almost ready.”
This band wasn’t as good as the last one. At least, that’s how it seemed. Maybe we were all just worn out. Either way, the pit was much less active this time around. Alex and I stood on either side of Nick, trying to teach him how to mosh. He got the hang of it, I think, but he seemed to be doing it kind of half-heartedly. Like he was doing it for my sake, rather than his own. That’s not what I wanted at all. I wanted him to feel free, not obligated.
At the end of the set, I asked him if he wanted to sit the next one out. He agreed, and we headed back toward the bar.
“This isn’t really my thing, I don’t think.” He said, climbing onto a stool. “But you don’t have to sit out with me.”
“No, it’s cool.” I sat down next to him. “Alex can handle himself up there. I wanted to be with you, anyway.”
Nick’s lips twitched, like he was trying to smile but not quite making it there. “I’m holding you back, huh?”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Like I told you before, I’m boring. You’d be having more fun if I wasn’t here.”
“I…I think, maybe…” His eyes were studying the top of the bar. “Maybe this isn’t working.”
“What…what are you talking about?” My words stuck to the inside of my throat like dragonfly wings.
“I mean, you’re into all this stuff,” He said, motioning around the room, “Punk shows, and subcultures, and Satan and stuff.”
I almost could have laughed. Almost. “Satan? What?”
“I mean, not literally. But, that song…you’re into this stuff, and I’m…not. I’m really, really nervous here. And your friend?” He nodded toward the front of the crowd, where Alex was still standing. “He makes me nervous, too. When he was talking to my dad…it was like it was so easy for him to just lie. Right to his face. I…I don’t like having to lie to my parents, Bran. I don’t like having to sneak around all the time.”
“But…what about me?” I asked. My eyes were burning. I was straining to hold back tears. I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Don’t you like me?”
“I love you.” He said. There was a catch in his voice, too. “I just…I love my parents, too. I know that seems weird, since I complain about them more than anybody, but…I don’t know. They’re my family. And…you know, it started out with just small stuff, but now we’re getting other people to lie for us, and you’re taking me to places like this, and…I feel like you’re making me choose between them and you.”
“I’m not! I wouldn’t! I mean…I told you, straight out, if you want me to leave you alone, because of what’ll happen if they find out, then I will. Just ask.”
“I’m…asking.” He said, sniffing. “I can’t keep doing this. Spending time with you is the best, but when I’m alone, I just…I hate myself so much. Remember how I’d get really upset and start crying when you kissed me?”
I nodded. That wasn’t something that I’d ever forget.
“I thought it would get better. I thought I’d get used to it or something, but it only got worse. It used to be that it’d only happen after I kissed you, and I’d feel really guilty about it. But these last couple days, it’s been happening all the time. Whenever you’re not around, I just feel horrible. I don’t…I don’t understand any of it, and I don’t think I’ll be able to figure it out if I keep this up.”
Tears were streaming down both of our faces, now, right there in the middle of a crowded club, but I was too heartbroken to care. All I wanted was to make Nick happier. I’d wanted him to see himself the way I saw him.
Looking back, I can’t believe how naïve and arrogant I’d been to think that I could have that kind of an effect on a person. Yeah, it makes a great story – the “power of love” turning someone’s life around – but obviously Nick had a lot of unresolved issues. Things that he had to figure out on his own. Like I did. Meeting Alex and Corey and being introduced to the punk scene may have all nudged me in the right direction, but in the end, I had to figure out who I was…and who I wanted to be. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen just from getting kissed and jumping around in a mosh pit. And I was pretty sure that I wasn’t even all the way there, yet.
I pulled my stool close to Nick’s, put an arm around him, and let him soak my shoulder while I held back my own tears. The third band had started playing by then, so no one was paying attention to us. My chest felt heavy as I realized that this might be the last time I’d ever hold him. That reminded me of something I’d said to him once before.
“Some day, when you don’t need me to hold you…I’ll probably still want to do it, anyway.” I whispered.
He looked up, wiping his face with a sleeve. “God, I hope so.” With that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips against mine. It wasn’t the longest kiss we’d shared, or the most passionate…and thanks to all the crying he’d been doing, it certainly wasn’t the most hygienic. It was, however, the most powerful. It carried so many messages at once. It was an ending. A beginning. A public admission. A private goodbye. The memory of that brief but meaningful kiss would play itself out in my head over and over. It would make me alternately despondent and confident, longing and content.
I’d been in orbit, but it was time to touch down.
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