(16) natalie imbruglia, "torn" DEFEATS (1) ini kamoze, "here comes the hotstepper" 493-199
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aaron smith on "torn"
I was supposed to be writing an essay about Natalie Imbruglia’s song “Torn” when my mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was in the back of my head that I had a deadline approaching. Over the course of three weeks, I sat in rooms waiting to see what each doctor would say about my mother: urologist (You have a big mass in your kidney); urologist again (Your lungs are clear); oncology urologist (You’ve had this tumor for at least fifteen years); and the post-surgery room where they take you and you worry the news is bad because they’ve isolated you. Thankfully, my mother’s prognosis is good: after the doctor cut her in half, pulled out her kidney, he said: Good news and She did great. He even drew us a picture with a pencil (kidney mass as a big scribbly circle and a “thrombus” (a new word we learned) moving toward her liver). My whole family listened rapt and confused and relieved. I kept thinking: those hands have been inside my mother.
Every day after the diagnosis I told myself I’d work on the essay at night before bed. I’d hum the beginning of the chorus: “I’m all out of faith. / This is how I feel.” And then I’d get distracted or too tired or someone in my family would need something or I’d think: what if her cancer is as bad as we are afraid to imagine. I’d say to myself on the back porch: “I don’t think I can leave her body in the ground and drive the fourteen hours back home to Boston.”
I first encountered “Torn” on MTV when I was in graduate school. I mostly wanted to fuck the guy in the video, whom I found out is gay in real life when I bought an expensive British magazine in a gay bookstore on Pittsburgh’s South Side that put everything a person bought into a brown paper bag. The bag told everyone you had a secret and it was sexy. This was right as the internet was beginning: bare-bones email and picture-less gay chat rooms, but nothing elaborate, and porn was still a tangible thing on VHS that my friends and I passed to one another, a kind of intimacy knowing which scene a friend liked and exactly what they were into. But it wasn’t just sex I hid. It was anything that marked me as a fag. My shame then was a tumor as big and sick as my mother’s.
Like I imagine many guys who grew up gay in the late 70’s or early 80’s, I got used to imagining myself in the place of women in movies, television and videos. Every shirtless stud was on top of me. That man was bringing me flowers. The guy, Jeremy Sheffield, in the “Torn” video might actually love me if I had glossy lips, a pixie haircut and tugged my sleeves like Natalie singing about being “naked on the floor.” I didn’t know then that guys like Jeremy—muscled, gorgeous, floppy-haired—don’t usually date chubby, balding guys like me who wear glasses; they usually date guys who look like them: Narcissus pinching his own nipples, staring into the stream. I hadn’t had sex with a man at that point, but I’d been every woman fucked by every sweaty man in every movie: Sharon Stone in Sliver, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl kissing Harrison Ford out of his dress shirt, Kim Basinger in 9 ½ Weeks.
Everyone kept praying for my mother. Each text from her friends: Praise god! We have everyone praying! Wait and see what god can do! And I kept thinking: why did god let her get cancer and carry it around in her body for over fifteen years? Why did she have to have cancer while her mother was dying? Why did she have cancer when she scrubbed the kitchen cabinets on Saturdays? Why did she have cancer at my parents’ fortieth anniversary party my sister and I threw when she looked so pretty and happy and cancerless. I’m all out of faith. This is how I feel.
Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” written by American alternative-rock band Ednaswap, survives because of the melody, the springy guitar at the beginning, the catchy, spin-around-your-room-in-a-circle push of it, the chorus and the electric guitar leading us out of the song while Natalie thrashes in her blue hoodie (the blonde homo in the baby-blue sweater and nineties corduroys who, for obvious reasons, can’t seem to get the kiss right).
The lyrics really don’t make sense: “I thought I saw a man brought to life. / He was warm, he came around like he was dignified. / He showed me what it was to cry.” It’s as if the writers needed a rhyme, something to fit the established structure. What does dignity have to do with crying in this scenario? “Illusion never changed / into something real” leads us eventually to “You're a little late. / I'm already torn.” Wasn’t he, like my mother’s cancer, already there?
I look at these lyrics and feel like I can make sense out of them sometimes, but then I feel like my writing students who try and try to understand a poem that makes no sense, that only the writer (barely) understands, and then try to convince me with republican-spin that it’s obvious, common sense, not confusing at all. I always say: “Sounds like you’re writing a poem instead of reading one.” I guess wanting to believe in anything requires a bit of spin—like Natalie twirling on that set—more work than we should be asked to do and still not quite making sense.
“So I guess the fortune teller's right. / I should have seen just what was there /and not some holy light.” Now that things are looking good for my mother, everyone keeps saying that god had a hand in the result. I keep thinking about the doctor’s hand opening her torso. I asked a lover once which finger he put inside me, and he flipped me off across the bed: fuck you and this is how I fucked you. How to make sense of what’s inside us? How to make meaning? Do we need it?
Maybe some songs just feel good. Maybe it’s okay not to understand, not to pick at the threads. Maybe it’s not necessary to point out whether a thing is poorly constructed or not. Maybe songs like “Torn” let us fuck a British guy in a video and imagine a life, even briefly, where we can have everything we want just the way we want it. Maybe the point is to belt out with passion silly words that sound good together because we don’t have the right words for things we don’t even know are inside us?
Perhaps songs like “Torn” are aptly titled “one-hit wonders.” There’s no need to really think about them, but year after year they come back to us because it just feels good to sing, because it just feels good to get fucked. They help us deal with the fact that there isn’t a god who gives a shit about us. We don’t need to waste our time hiding the things we want in brown bags.
Just because “the perfect sky is torn” doesn’t mean we have to look.
Aaron Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Primer, Appetite, and Blue on Blue Ground. He is assistant professor in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
joshua dewain foster on "here comes the hotstepper"
Late one winter night, January 2017, working alone in my bedroom/office in Houston, Texas, I listened to “Here Comes the Hotstepper” for the first time as an Adult (though technically I am still Young Adult until July when I hit 35 and thus set adrift across the decades of adulthood doldrum; I’ll make peace with the fact that I’ll paddle my raft alone, no partner to spot for sunburn or suspect moles or call my misplaced iPhone, no one to scuttle and cull; I’ll mutter about the inevitable forecast: MORE OF THE SAME). I report now that Ini Kamoze’s 1994 chart-topping reggae-rap anthem did nothing but annoy me, like it had always done.
That night, I was more country: I’d lost my money, my pony, my woman, and my path, and wandered the wilderness, down the bottle, barking at—and trying to bite—every visible, extant thing. Over-dramatic? No doubt. I am a first-wave American Millennial watching the gloaming of my youth b. July 5, 1982, Idaho Falls, ID 2:55 pm; graduated Rigby High year 2000.
January 2017, a prime example of my dysfunction: during my phd studies, my wife of four years (her first marriage; my second; she, seven years my junior) informed me that a separation was imperative, packed her things, moved out. Strapped double to make bills and rent, student-loan money long gone, no T.A. paycheck until the end of the month, I pawned my BMX bike and Herman-Miller Aeron chair. Other than my ten-year old cat—the most successful relationship I’ve ever had; a decent history of animal husbandry, at least—my rig was my remaining asset: a Nissan pickup with 209,466 farm miles on it, patched with duct tape and zip-ties, and, scratched into the passenger side (from some smartass vandal’s index finger, the crime perpetrated in the parking lot of an Idaho grocery store after a day in the fields): I Wish My Wife Was This Dirty. I put the truck up for sale, priced it way too high, knew it wouldn’t sell.
I looked for another job. ... Well, I asked bartenders, at least … dragged my feet with a shelf-stocker app because they wanted a drug-test ... I was too old for this shit, I realized. So I got sad, smoked some weed about it, and read on my phone about the SuperBowl. One million unique visitors to Houston, America’s Third (or Fourth) largest metropolis! That night, I completed an application with Uber and found a car to buy. Next day—with thirty dollars in my bank account, and two credit cards, maxed out—I traded the truck on the car—a 2013 Ford Fusion hybrid sedan, gloss white—and financed the rest over sixty months, the whole ordeal taking less than two hours. What A Country! Where a guy with sand and a data plan could still hustle wheels and a gig!
But I didn’t drive off into the sunset, no. A check engine light came on. I was sent home in a loaner. When my car was delivered, the check engine light returned, and Uber wouldn’t certify it. Second opinion said there was $4000 damage under the hood. I returned the car; they sent me in another loaner and promised to expedite the repairs. Finally mobile, I went out for groceries and cat-litter. While inside, a crook broke the window out. Five loaners and ten business days after I turned over my truck—and a $450 insurance claim on the loaner window—my Ford was collecting dust in some lot.
On top of that, my wife moved back into the apartment. She, too, was broke-up and broke-down and just plain broke. As a loyal, peacemaking Cancer (ascendant sign Libra) and, per Meyer-Briggs, Extroverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging, and a former Missionary for the Lord and current Eagle Scout, I didn’t turn her away. Cosmically, I never could refuse her. Naturally, I was dejected and sullen. We divided the flat.
Car-less, careless, pathetic, indignant, stoned—in this state of delicate mind/heart/wallet—I could still hear her singing the Halfway House heartbreak blues—I accessed “Hotstepper” and turned it up. Sat with my face in my hands and viewed it seven, ten times. As a child of the Nineties, this should have at least filled me with some warm Care Bears nostalgia, that deep Rudy rally. Nope. I was put off by the mesh tanktops, tassel bikinis, open windbreakers and CAT boots, white dreads, myriad unfortunate hats. The peppy lime, the gross tangerine. Refused to hear the lyrical savviness: Bo Jackson and Mack Daddy, N.W.A., the sampling, “Money to burn, Baby.” What a bummer. All of that decade’s pureed, gauzy, hopeful pop culture foofoo only existed now for fodder, fuel. I did my research on the artist. Read the wiki, at least.
Decoyed as an exercise in evaluation, I showed “Hotstepper” to my seventy-five writing students. What was a hotstepper? Juice like a strawberry? How did we get on a train? Where is this three-walled abandoned—but newly painted—shack? Who did this cocky, pudgy, slow-strutting rhymester think he was, anyways?
To my surprise, the students liked it. Catchy intro. Good beat. They’d heard it at Rockets and Astros games. Hotstepper meant fugitive in Jamaican Creole (Wikipedia), or could be an allusion to AIDS (Yahoo! Answers). Take that for what it’s worth. He’s no killer, they answered, he’s a lyrical gangsta—he slays rhymes. The set? Metaphorical—Kamoze blew off the roof. I couldn’t get them to naysay or deride.
So I told my friends—during classes and at bars—about the song. No one recognized it by title; folks shook their head at the artist’s strange name. I would sound the hook—nah na na na nah na na na nah na nah nah na na nah na na na nah (also a popular Google search)—and they’d acknowledge it. I complained about this to my parents, friends, the cat. The world no longer made sense to me. I was at a loss as to how I’d make it through.
“Be a beaver,” my father said.
Julius promised my luck was gonna change.
Chubbs texted, simply: Get a Win.
My mother encouraged prayer.
No Duh, guys … but then, advice from three salesmen and a genealogist? Not sure they could solve my problems. For one, they’d never be dumb enough to get in them ... soon, I was pacing, vexed, thinking … You don’t know me! … You can’t judge me! … Don’t tell me how to live!
I kept hustling, teaching, studying, eating Ramen, busy busy busy. I texted the car salesman every morning for updates on the Ford. SUPERBOWL WEEK—LOSING MONEY EVERY DAY. Finally, seventeen days after I’d signed my name on the dotted line, threatened arbitration and the BBB, the Ford was done. I picked it up, shook the salesman’s hand, told him I hoped we never saw each other again. Drove straight to Uber HQ and squeezed into a three-hour line. The waiting room was crowded: people of every language and pigment, mothers with babies, grandfathers, pairs of balding men, on and on ... Hip employees in their twenties—matching t-shirts, their common uniform—completing the work via tablets and phones. Dinner arrived: single-wrapped tacos in pizza boxes. It was a sullen, downtrodden, ravenous crowd. The food got snarfed. The house games—bean bags, Tic-Tac-Toe—remained unused.
The Ford got certified, and I started driving that night. It took all of Thursday and part of Friday to get my bearings, but it wasn’t a steep learning curve. Having come up in the Nineties, I found the tech intuitive, game-changing, disruptive. As for driving, I’d been doing that since I was fourteen as the farm’s parts runner, using paper maps, gas station clerks, and sketches drawn in dirt. By eighteen, I’d operated spud trucks, John Deeres, Case Magnums, skid-steers, back-hoes. I taught myself to drive semi while delivering pallets of sod at twenty-three, can man most watercraft without sails, and once took the stick of a Cessna and drove it 200 mph through the Teton air. Sure, I suffered juvenile accidents. Nothing fatal, but enough to learn how to crash.
I can’t remember the first fare I showed “Hotstepper” to. By then, I’d Ubered over twenty hours, made twenty-five trips ferrying bobos and yuppies and Up North Yankees, Screen Babies ordering McDonalds via PostMate, nice boring couples, bougie med students with vocal fry, Gen X event workers, packs of stray dogs. I never talked in the car unless the fare initiated, and I made sure to be the first to cut if off. If the fare was racist or drunk, I didn’t encourage conversation as all. None of them had much interesting to say about the song: The Beach. The Houseboat. THE CLUB. It stayed that way—steady, mostly uninteresting—until Saturday. I punched out midday to get some sleep—my teeth stung from the Red Bull and cigarettes—and when I woke saw a text from Uber that the next twelve hours would be the busiest in UBER HISTORY.
I shook it off, inhaled caffeine, moseyed out to hit the grit. Picked up a dork on a pizzeria date who told me I had five stars. He was astonished, floored. He’d never experienced five stars. I was his first. As a rider, he had 4.94 stars. Not too shabby.
“News to me,” I said, perking. I hate authority, but love assessment. Like me, star me, heart me, view me, vote me, share share share ...
… Rate me. Do it. Badges. Stars. Thumbs. Hearts. Shares. Votes. Views ...
Next in a swank hidden condoplex: two slender women; two men—world-worn, tatted-up, ten years older—all in workout gear. Sketch? It raised a brow. Uber (and my mother) had sent warning messages to lookout for sex traffic.
When I asked if they were visiting, one of the women squeaked, “It’s top secret—we’re FBI.”
The man in the front seat, sleeveless hoodie, goatee, 80s sailor tatts, said, “We travel with people to shit like this.”
“So you’re the guy they call when there’s trouble?”
Dude paused: “People call us to find trouble.”
Was he a handler? A fluffer? A pimp? Were these L.A. strippers, or East European Escorts?
“Did any of you come up in the Nineties?”
They all did, the women clearly on the shady side of the decade, in hospitals still, but I showed them the song, and before even the Nahs, Dude said:
“Ini Kamoze! Dude, I’m just saying...damn, man. Miami, 1994.”
Dude closed his eyes and raised his fists and started rolling shoulders. I could see him, white silk shirt flowing. “Here Comes the Hotstepper” held the Billboard Hot 100 one-spot for two consecutive weeks, December 17 and 24, sandwiched between two Boyz II Men superhits and following songs by Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting, Celine Dion, All-4-One, Ace of Base, R. Kelly, and Lisa Loeb. I dropped that crew at the gym next to the popup where I’d taken an NFL linebacker to the night before. Texted myself: HTSTPR transportative?
Later, because of traffic and parking, I had a bad start to a ride. Caught one that was NOT FROM HERE and unaware of concepts like COOPERATION and CARDINAL DIRECTIONS.. I had to park and find her (and her friend—two tall, badass, side-shaved women—and walked them back to my car. They carried their dresses in bags for the Playboy party and were dressed down in stretchy clothes. Their disinterest was visceral. Traffic was awful then, and we had ten minutes, so what the hell? One loosened up and told me about her dad who would play only “Hotstepper” and AC/DC “Back in Black” on the way to soccer practice. He was her coach, and apparently a deadbeat: they no longer talked. I dropped them at a hotel, texted: HTSTPR equalizer?
But that was the last text. As soon as I dropped a fare, the next one pinged. The afternoon got hairy: loud Yankees asking me for drive-thru and rub-and-tug recs. Graduated SEC frat brothers, the ugly sidekick promising his handsome bud that “Bro, basically I’d never let you fuck Erica tonight.” A sixty year old father bragging to his forty year old son about the stripper who grabbed his dick. “You coulda fucked her, Dad.” More than one clever scumbag asked blowjob questions: Had I seen one yet? Had I got one yet? Seriously, bro, what would you do if that went down in your car?
I did not show “Hotstepper” to these fares, not because I had given up on the song. I was finally having some thoughts about it, and wanted to talk. No, these buttfaces did not deserve humanizing common ground. I put of soft jams, for them.
The sun set. Houston finally dark, misty, traffic surging all around. I avoided it, stayed on the fringes. Downtown, visible to the east, a wet dream of patriotic team colors that saturated the sky. The stadium, where there were choppers and crews and a three story decal of Tom Brady and Matt Ryan—helmetless titans, so handsome American white, every moment of their lives leading to this one, THE BIG GAME, tomorrow night, soon to be over and done.
… Elsewhere in the league, grunt players you’ve never heard of are shooting themselves through the heart ...
This mess, these brutes, had me down on life. I stopped, ate two chili dogs. Smoked, stretched, phoned a friend. Then I got my head right back in the Uber game. Ping, one minute away. High-rise apartments, all soft light and glass.
The woman took her time. Came out, looked around like she was lost or confused. Stood by the trunk, as if I were a doorman, tucking things into her scanty blue party dress. I waited, not realizing she expected me to open her door. Eventually she figured it out. Got in, asked for a phone cord. She was on her way to the Maxim party and had to call her boo. I turned off the music, as she was using speaker phone. Well, the guy was not that interested. She played cute, coy, then cruel. The guy said “BITCH—WHY YOU EVEN CALLING ME?” and hung up.
I checked the rear-view. She was fine. Not a wince or tear.
“Can you get me some air?” she asked. “I know my tits are barely covered, but I’m all sweaty back here.”
I did, and offered music, her choice.
“You DJ,” she said, “turn it up.”
We merged onto a highway and started south. Sugarland. All the traffic was headed in, which mean six open lanes. I put on Run the Jewels 3 (“Hotstepper” felt off-mood) and got right to eighty mph. Why not? I was a five star driver. All the cops were downtown; the road construction equipment had been cleared. A princess was in distress. I was a de-crowned prince, a high-borne from a low hinterland caste, my skill in the saddle, at the wheel.
Uber kept chirping about speed.
“Want me to slow down?” I asked.
“You’re good. I trust you.”
Sexiest thing I’d heard in weeks. Arrived six minutes too fast. We sat in a drop-off line. Stopped the music, chatted. She was Russian, transplanted first to L.A., now Texas, modeling. She lauded my driving. I deflected by asking about her career.
“I used to be busier but not right now, not with these tits, not with this big ass.”
I talked my way to the VIP Entrance. Jumped out to catch her door. She took my hand and I helped her out.
Told her: “Tonight’s your night. Tear it up in there.”
She re-situated her dress, hugged me, and tipped me a crumpled ten.
Back downtown, party ebb and flow. Did that a few hours. Picked up a couple dudes headed to League City, forty minutes away. They slept. I listened to “Hotstepper” and mused:
Does one-hit mean easier … lesser than … if you can do it once, can you do it again, and again … does Ini love “Hotstepper” … did it curse him … did he sell-out … was he never-should-have-been … Worth it +/- … Ambivalent … … OR WAS IT MORE LIKE that one time Ini got off the island … That one time Ini was on MTV … Those two weeks Ini mattered … OR WAS THIS NOTHING MORE THAN a time, a thing, a moment, a beat … a series of syllables, sounds ...
League City was lights-out. The kids got out the backseat, got into a pickup, and drove straight home to San Antonio, two hundred miles back the other way.
Midnight, stuck in B.F.E. I waited around, checked the action. After a while, I got a request from Thor. I wanted Adventures in Babysitting but got instead a boat mechanic with his young tejana bride. Thor rejected the app’s instructions and took me along Coward Creek to stay away from pigs, but also to show me how high the waterline was after Hurricane Ike.
It was almost one when I dropped Thor. The bars closed at two, and then everyone would want to go home. And then it’d be dead, and regardless of songs and conversation, I would still be mostly broke and down-and-out. So I was torn: Should I finish out in the suburbs? Or jet back to the city? I limped along in ECO mode. Something pinged, eight miles away. I accepted and whipped around.
Four from a Mexican Cantina, puddle-jumping to the next bar next town over. Laughy, drunky. Three of them looked legal, barely. The other one looked fifteen years old. I asked them to tell me a story, and the little one scooted up (middle backseat) and laid it on me: A year ago, he got diagnosed with Leukemia. Twenty years old. Got chemo—no changes. Doctor misdiagnosed him. So, second cancer diagnosis. Another round of chemo. Doctor misdiagnosed it again. Third time’s a charm, right? Nope. After that, the family mortgages the house and moves him to a big city hospital but they misdiagnose him too.
They were all here for him, I saw, a pair of high school sweethearts still together, and the third-wheel human laugh-track guy, just roaring, and the sick nerd. Can you believe this fucking shit! Lolololol!
So I’m waiting for the turn. When does he get cured? Clearly, he’s in better shape now, right, if he’s out drinking with friends? There’s a happy ending to the story?
“So what was it?” I asked.
“NO ONE KNOWS! THAT’S WHAT’S SO FUNNY!”
That was not good news.
“I had more tests done, guess I’ll see what comes back. I feel great today. I mean, I’m pretty much a human baby pin cushion”—rofl— “but my hair’s soft. Feel it. Seriously, touch it.”
The friends joined in, cajoling, “Feel his head! Feel it!”
Now—maybe this is just me, or maybe it is where I was born, and who I was born to, and the techniques under which I was raised, or just my own adult predilections—but I am not a person who enjoys disappointing … I am philosophically opposed to D.A.R.E.—I never Just Say No ...
I reach my arm back—left hand on the wheel, eyes on the road, in total control—and palm the guy’s delicate head like a mini-basketball. His hair felt like—a peach? a chinchilla? It remains the softest thing that’s ever brushed my skin.
I dropped them at a strip mall sports-hole. The quiet friend tipped me five dollars, patted my shoulder, wiped a tear. Damn. It was 1:40 am. I parked to wait until the bar closed but then … I was in a reckless mood, thinking about all my friends that had died (or I’d otherwise lost) since the Nineties, and I put on an album that reminded me of all of them and turned off Uber, got on the Beltway. I had twenty minutes to get to the Maxim party. It would be ending and maybe I’d luck into the Russian a second time. That bullshit might cheer me up.
I pushed the Ford to 99 mph. Lucky Numbers Nine, HIGH SCHOOL NUMBERS, pouring it out for the homies, big time loss. How many brackets did we fill out? Jordan suckers, count on them picking N.C. and all the red teams; I beat them betting underdogs.
Made it back to Maxim. Got a ping—not the Russian—and moved up inch by inch. Who was I kidding, about the Russian? We couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t understand each other. We’d never meet a second time, like predestined Google pins.
I saw my fare before she saw me. Black dress, shoes off, standing at the curb. Eyes up, not glued to her phone. I hollered her name through the open window. Our eyes locked, and then she got in the car. She was astute: my first fare to pick out that I was Mormon, or at least still reeked of Boy Scouts. She’d left the church after Prop 8, had already been married and divorced. Reminded me of a girl from Sunday School.
It was after three when we got to her spot. She wanted to keep talking. Sure, I’d take a smoke. We shuffled in the gravel. I showed her the song, at least the first minute, but then shut it off. She wanted me to take down her number and call her sometime, for a drink. So I did, we hugged, and I got in my car and shut the door.
I thought about quitting then, for the first time all night. I’d put in a long day: ten hours so far, hardly any stops. Been all over the city, two-hundred plus miles. I could feel good about going home to my empty apartment, getting high, boiling some noodle water, petting the cat. I got a phone number, even, from a woman. That exceeded expectations. Why not go out on top?
I pulled around the block and smoked. Drank Red Bull. I stayed trucking, keeping the music low and the rides smooth.Two more hours scooping up wanderers, couriering them home. Worn out, ornery, pukey looking pukes. Cognition way down. I got to an office building at five and pulled right up next to my fare. He wouldn’t get in. He wandered down the street, hugging people at the bus stop.
“Brother,”—he kept calling me that, brother, brother, as I walked him to my car.
Once inside: “Brother, I have never seen so many beautiful girls.”
I pronounced his name, poorly.
“Brother, call me Bomb, brother. Brother, can you take me to get some food? I have never felt such hunger.”
I routed Bomb to Whataburger. He was a phd student, and based on his male-pattern baldness, older than me, I hoped. He’d been raving all night, and boasted sexy drug allure. Back there? Where I picked you up? I hardly believed him.
The drive-thru was twenty cars long, spilled out into the empty street.
“Take me home,” he said, “I will make eggs there. And here, here,”—he fidgeted with his cuff and then handed something up. “Go back, brother, it’s VIP. You will not regret it. You will not.”
I put the purple paper band in my cupholder and thanked him. I vacillated on the rave as I took him the rest of the way home. But as soon as I could, I turned off for the night and routed right back to the building. Parked, watched the windshield wipers, then wrapped my wrist with the band—I’VE JOINED THE CIRCUS, it read—and fastened the loose ends with chewed gum, hit the bat, and followed the music inside.
A huge cavernous space in a receiving bay, or some sort of shipping business. Couches, makeshift bars, tables with empty liquor bottles. The sound pulsated, bumped, and debris—paint chips? asbestos?—pinwheeled from the ceiling. Water dripped down. Stage in the middle, a DJ at the turntables, laser lights—green purple orange blue—through fog machines below. A chill-out corner where couples and singles crashed out in hammocks and bean bag chairs. Maybe fifty people daybreaking in front of the stage. It didn’t look that different than the Uber office, really, other than it looked like you could smoke anything inside—but cigarettes.
I went and stood near the people and smoked more weed. Stared at the lights and the crowd. A tall slender man in a jacket and jeans and chains on his boots. A woman in capris and bobbed hair. Denim abounded, such high-waisted jeans. I offered the bat to a woman who looked like Janeane Garofalo. She declined by pretending I didn’t exist. It was the Nineties again. What the hell? I danced by myself.
On the stage, three women made silhouettes like a Bond Girls collage. One was different than the rest, looked like a Cowboy’s Cheerleader, reminded me of my first love, my square-dance partner from fifth grade Idaho History class. I watched her feet. I was all sorts of sentimental, tripping over my youth. 34, tired, lonely, and sad … I was going to do something about it … I went around backstage … plotted something clever to say.
She came past me, and I caught her attention, and asked her.
“What?” she asked. “I can’t hear you!”
She was a little unsteady—me too.
“TEACH ME HOW TO CLOG?”
She hugged me around the waist and said, with a tickle, “You know you liked it.”
She bolted immediately. I wandered around peacocking until I grew bored for a smoke. I planned to leave after that cigarette, but the three women came out. I could tell in the yellow halogen that the clogger was older than me by the way she handled her phone, complaining to the bouncers that she needed an Uber.
I went over to her, opened my phone and showed her my rating. Still five stars. We both turned on but couldn’t connect. I took them, free of charge.
Lady was rolling, or worse—kept mentioning the last drink she’d had. She rode shotty, the two ladies—DJs who had performed earlier—rested on each other in the back. Lady laughed at my jokes, put her hand on my arm. Pleasant, short drive. When I got to her condo, she sent the girls inside, said she wanted to talk. She was from Colorado, or had come up there. We lamented flat Houston, waxed for cold mountains snow. I told her that my favorite first photo is me on skis, ready to descend the front-yard flower garden in the front yard of my childhood trailer home. I was four—the year I peaked.
She told me a beautiful thing: she, too, was a skier, and her father had taught her by putting a hula-hoop around them both, so she’d have something to hang onto, so she couldn’t zip away. I imagined her and her father, big S curves down the hill, encircled, and that was a beautiful sight. I got homesick, choked-up.
She had to pee, but instead of going to her room, she squatted in the shrubbery and kept chattering. Nbd. When a man passed by on a bike, I made sure he kept his eyes on me.
For a minute, I thought she’d invite me up, but in this case, I planned to decline. I didn’t show her the song. That hardly mattered anymore. We both had wanted reminiscence, and having completed that, were hungry and tired. I stood there waiting for it, curious as to how this would go.
A text came. Weird number.
Can you come to Harris County Jail?
I had no idea who it was ... I replied ...
Is this my wife?
It was the preppy Dallas prick, the freestyle rapper. He needed a ride home.
Lady freaked. Had he smuggled in his phone? Was I his only call? Holy Crap What Was I Going To Do????
Told her I guessed I better go—someone else needed saving. Played it cool on my way out. Sauntered. Really, though, I wondered how much gas I had left in the tank. I was road-worn, weathered. There was a dude out there in need … I texted him…
… off the clock, bro, good luck ...
Dawn. I pulled into Jack-In-The-Box on my way home. I turned off my music, ordered a Munchie Meal and, what the hell, two tacos for dessert. There was only one young dude, manning till and grill. He took my money and started frying.
I anticipated this was almost over. Soon—after I’d driven home and my wife’s car would not be there, and I’d watch cartoons and eat alone; after, in a week’s time, I’d lose my five stars to an unknown fare (a drunk with a fat thumb? the women I wouldn’t let hotbox?)—soon, I could shower and power down.
“Here you go, Boss.” Young Dude hung my food out.
Oh, what relief, what joy! The caffeine in my gut percolated. I salivated at the smell. Finally, I was happy, proud. Sweat for bread; sacrifice for gold. I took the bag and set it on the floor. Shifted to D, coasted ahead.
Almost to the main road, I realized the radio wasn’t on—but there was sound. It came from me. I was singing, nodding:
nah na na nah
nah na nah na nah na na nah na na nah
nah na na nah
Joshua Dewain Foster studied writing at Rigby High School, BYU-Idaho, University of Arizona, Stanford University, and University of Houston. He enjoyed music at all those schools, and still listens to it as he drives Uber around HTX. Get in touch via Twitter @JDFish_9 or Facebook.