Friday, April 25, 2008

What Happens When I Listen to Toad The Wet Sprocket

Today I was driving back from Portland when Good Intentions by Toad the Wet Sprocket came on the radio. And suddenly it was 1995 in my head. I was fourteen years-old. I was on the bus to a field trip and sitting behind Tammy--my best, best friend--and she was making out with the boy that would eventually take down our friendship.

This happens every time I come across "Good Intentions." There can be long stretches--months, years--where I completely forget that song even exists, but when those first few notes come over the radio and I do remember, things get foggy inside my head. Something in those notes has the ability to steal into my heart and twist it backward, all the way back to eighth and ninth grade, to the years where I was desperately trying to be my best friend, to the years where she was desperately trying to become anything but who she already was.

But it's not Tammy I'm thinking about when Toad the Wet Sprocket gets a courtesy play during the 90s hour on local radio. It's the boy--the one who's pressing her up against the reinforced bus windows, the one who has been pressing so close for so long it's possible that their skin might grow together, might root them to that spot. They have been making out for the last thirty minutes straight, which I, up until that point, had thought physically impossible. At fourteen, I didn't know much about kissing--I was still two years away from getting my first--but what little I did know seemed to support the fact that it involved a lot of mouth action and would, I assumed, impede the breathing process. I figured you had to come up for air every now and again. But Tammy and--well, let's call him David--so proved me wrong.

Tammy and David kissed in a way that I haven't really seen since. Their methods were what I based all my knowledge of kissing on. Which possibly explains why I was so terrified at the prospect of putting my lips on someone else's for the first time--I was sort of afraid I was going to choke or gasp or run out of air and prove to be a complete novice. When Tammy and David kissed, they sucked their mouths together and--I can only assume--tangled tongues the entire time. There was no gentle pecking, no together-apart-together-apart-together-apart the way normal human beings kiss. There was just sucking. Sucking, sucking, sucking. For, like, an hour. And whenever they separated, there was a moist unlocking sound, and Tammy always had to wipe at the corners of her mouth. She just looked so practiced and smooth and cool about the whole thing, and I knew I was going to completely screw it up if ever I got to try it.

And you know the most horrible thing? The person I wanted to try it with the most was David. After all, I was the one who liked him first. It was a strange thing, me liking David, because I was a very good girl--nerdy, brainy, quiet--and David was none of those things. First of all, he'd failed a grade. All his best friends had facial hair and talked about getting cars. He seemed worldly and interesting and misunderstood. He played the drums and always carried a spare set of drumsticks around with him, which he would tap on books and desks and radiators--usually at inappropriate moments, like when Mr. Weaver was talking about the beauty of Mark Twain's prose.

I didn't fully understand why I liked him. He was everything I didn't want. He was everything that would've put my parents into cardiac arrest. He was everything that a girl like me never, ever, ever got. Was he cute? No, not really. He was skinny. He had knobby knees. He wore a lot of ratty blue plaid. He had that hair that was popular in the 90s--parted in the middle, long down each side, greasy. His best feature? His eyes. They were a blue that you very rarely ever see--pure and clear, striking, icy. Looking into those eyes, a girl could forget an awful lot. She could forget the list of detentions on a boy's record. She could forget the smart-mouthed way he talked to teachers. She could forget that he smoked. She could forget how to breathe.

When I first developed my vague interest in David and his eyes, I mentioned it to my best friend, and she didn't seem all that impressed. But a few months later the two of them were dating.

I didn't mind all that much. It wasn't like I was going to get him for a boyfriend. Ever. But this way--with my best friend dating him--I was able to be close to him without being rejected. I was their third wheel. I was their lookout girl. For months I kept my eyes peeled, scanning dances for chaperones, scanning hallways for teachers, scanning our seats at the racetrack for her family. But even though I was looking out, I always had one eye on him.

David liked me. I knew he did. He thought I was funny, in a nerdy sort of way. He thought I was nice and good to talk to. He thought I was fun to hang out with. But I knew that's where it stopped. He never looked at me and thought, Gee, I wish I was kissing Jess instead of Tammy.

But that didn't mean I wouldn't get my chance. Because I would. Because I did.

When we moved up to high school, Tammy went through a brief upheaval. She suddenly realized there was a whole other world out there, with new boys and new social groups and new opportunities for coolness. She wanted to be mature and sophisticated. She wanted to run with the wild crowd. She accomplished that in a two-step process. First, she cut off ties with our old friends. Second, she developed a crush on David's best friend--one of the ones with facial hair and a car--and then cheated with him.

David, who had spent the better part of a year half-breathing through marathon makeout sessions and giving hickeys, was crushed. He suffered through the breakup in a very poetic way. He was, after all, a musician, and he grieved in a very rockstar kind of way. There were a lot of dramatics. There was talk of suicide. There was talk of kicking the shit out of everyone involved in the situation. There was talk of drugs and alcohol. And I know this because I was the one hearing this talk. I had tried the best I could to talk Tammy out of going off with David's best friend, the boy whose only redeeming quality was a potentially large penis that the older girls whispered about. After a year with David, I knew there was more to him than all the badass bad-boy stuff. He was--honest to God--a really nice boy. But Tammy would have none of it, and she went off and did what she wanted to. And afterward, in a desperate attempt to win her back, David started calling me to make his case.

At first I tried to explain to Tammy just how bad David had it, just how bad he was suffering. But she was content with her decisions. There was no changing her heart. So I kept on taking David's phone calls. I kept talking him through it.

Tammy and I were yanked apart shortly after the breakup. There was bad blood. I didn't like how she was suddenly living her life, and she didn't like that I was taking David's side, that I was talking to him every night. There was a big fight, which threw me into the exact same position as David. Suddenly I was telling him how much it hurt, how much I wanted her back. And so we did the only thing left to do: we dated each other to try to fix the things she had broken in our hearts. And to get a little bit of revenge.

It didn't really work. The revenge or the relationship. By this point, David had been transported to another school district and, since neither of us had cars, we never saw each other. We talked every night and said that we loved each other, but it was mostly a charade. Still, he was my first boyfriend that lasted beyond a weekend. And there was one day where our relationship suddenly became very, very real to me.

We'd somehow both fixed it so that we would be at the mall at the same time. I was there with one of my oldest friends--a girl who grew up down the road from me--and he was there by himself. The three of us had a short window of time to wander the mall before our parents came again to claim us. We had to make the most of that time. And I knew this meant David would want to kiss me. He would want to kiss me a lot. He was used to that. He would expect that.

And me? Well, back then I was scared of everything. And topping my list of fears was my first kiss. There was such potential for disaster. After all, there was no way in hell that I was going to admit to him that I'd never been kissed before. Did I want him to think I was a mutant? A prude? A freak? I wanted him to think I was capable of everything Tammy had been capable of, even if that was impossible.

But, oh, did he ever try his best. He had his hands in the back pockets of my jeans the whole time. He pinched me and poked me. He nuzzled into my neck. He slipped his hand up under the back of my shirt. He drew a finger down my spine.

I loved every minute of it, even if each move he made chiseled another worry, another fear into my heart. I liked the feeling of being chased, of being wanted. I liked the feeling of a boy trying so hard just to get me to turn toward him, to give him a little bit of tenderness.

And so I did something a little reckless. In the middle of Claire's--that chain jewelry store in every mall ever built--I turned into David and kissed his neck. Then I kissed his nose. Then I kissed his lips. But once my lips touched his, I realized my mistake. He would certainly make the move to take more than just a peck. I pulled away before he could even open his lips. I wanted nothing to do with complicated kissing. I wanted nothing to do with teeth and tongues and the mechanics I didn't yet understand. He pulled me back to him, but I squirmed away. I would keep squirming away for the rest of the day. He would lean in, and I would lean away. I would twist my way out of the cage of his arms and dodge behind a rack of clothes, a stack of books, a bench.

We both left unsatisfied. I'd wanted to kiss him--to really kiss him--but I just didn't have it in me. I wasn't Tammy, no matter how hard I tried. There was too much I didn't understand, and I wasn't sure I even really wanted to understand yet. And that was the day David realized that dating Tammy's best friend wasn't anything close to dating Tammy. It wasn't the healing thing he'd wished it to be. I wasn't going to rescue him. I wasn't going to be that good story he told to his friends years later--the story that started with him dating one girl, falling hard for her, then realizing the one he really wanted to be with was his girlfriend's mousy best friend. Neither of us were going to come away from this having fixed our broken hearts.

We broke up shortly thereafter. It was the sweetest, kindest, easiest breakup in the history of breakups. During our nightly phone call, David casually mentioned he thought it might be better for both of us if we went our separate ways because, well, he'd met someone at his new school, and it was so hard to date someone in another school district anyway. We didn't even have cars. He could tell he wasn't what I wanted or needed. He asked me if that was right, if he'd guessed correctly. And he had. I wanted Tammy. I didn't want him. But I wanted him to be free and happy, and it was a relief that he was saying what I'd been wanting to say for weeks. I told him a breakup was fine with me. And so we told each other how much we liked each other, how much we wanted to stay in each other's lives, and that was that.

Then I didn't have Tammy and I didn't have him. I never had either of them again.

But there are times--like when Toad the Wet Sprocket comes on the radio--that I like to think about David and those few strange months we were together. Way back in the beginning--before he and Tammy took up together--I'd thought of him in a way that wasn't entirely fair or flattering. I thought he was bad news, no good, and trouble. I figured he had very few redeeming qualities. But he proved to be one of the biggest surprises of my teen years. He was sensitive and kind and funny. I loved to come home from school to hear him talk about his day. There was an easiness between us. There was friendship. I would've never expected it.

Not that long ago I saw David again. As luck would have it, after high school he ended up in a relationship with another girl from my group of friends. The two of them had a baby together, and they and the baby showed up to a wedding of yet another of our high school friends. David and I said approximately ten words to each other the whole time ("Hi" and "How are you" rank high on the list), and I spent the whole time feeling just so incredibly weird. I marveled at how two people can go through such drama together and then, years later, be complete strangers. But it didn't matter. When I watched him tussling on the floor with his baby--his baby who is a miniature version of him, with the same eyes and sly look--I was so thankful that we'd had each other for a short period in our lives. And I was so happy that both of us were able to shake all of that ugliness off our shoulders and move on, even if it felt in those moments like we were never going to be able to breathe right again.

So I'll take all of that. I'll turn up Toad the Wet Sprocket whenever they come on the radio, and I'll let my heart sing its old songs, and I'll sit very, very still for three minutes so I can live in my old life, my old body and be thankful for Tammy, thankful for David, thankful for those years where nothing and everything in the world made sense.


Casey Sween said...

I love the photo you attached. It's from Reality Bites, right. Man, I loved that movie. I loved that boy. I loved that hair.

The song that gets me? Counting Blue Cars' "Standing Outside a Broken Phonebooth With Money in my Hand" or some such title. Or any of the songs that were popular that year in 8th grade when I stayed home and listened to the radio and put together puzzles and paused to watch Maury every day. One was a Janet Jackson song. Another was one by Monica. I hear those and immediately feel an overwhelming sense of lonliness that followed me that year. Ahh, memories.

Casey Sween said...

Upon further research and YouTube-ing , I realized it was Dishwalla who put out "Counting Blue Cars" and Primitive Radio Gods would did the "Phonebooth" song. Ach.