Music and Sex: Scenes from a life - A novel in progress (first chapter here).
Walter got a call from Tony about getting together and, while they were chatting, complained about the guitarist situation.
"Hey, I know a guy who wants to be in a band. He's been bitching about everybody here playing guitar so there aren't enough bands to go around. You should talk to him."
Walter did so within minutes of getting the guy's phone number. Albert Imperatori, or as he styled himself, Emperor Albert, listened to Walter's explanation of what the band was aiming for, and its repertoire, and said, "I'm in. Better have a rehearsal tonight if you've got a gig tomorrow, right?"
They did, everything went well enough and without drama, and with Paulie out of the way, they could play the songs he refused to play, so their set got longer. Suddenly, magically, it looked like everything had fallen into place.
Phi Ep was nice in an old, worn way -- high ceilings, lots of wood with character, old lighting fixtures. After they'd brought all their gear across the street, Gabe, who'd gotten them the gig, led them on a little tour. They would be playing in the front room on the first floor at the top of the stairs, or the second floor if you considered the floor underneath to not be the basement, which it wasn't, since there was a basement under it, but Gabe called the real first floor the basement, so whatever. People lived on the real first floor and on what was actually the third floor; the floor they'd be playing on had the living room in the front and the kitchen behind that, which made it perfect for a party.
Gabe's tour included a few introductions to residents, all of whom seemed friendly and psyched for the party. Then they went back downstairs and set up, with a rudimentary sound check -- there'd be no PA, no sound guy, so they'd have to balance everything themselves.
Walter immediately ran into a problem. Somehow, either his electric piano or his amp was picking up radio transmissions, apparently from a taxi service. He fretted over it for a while, unable to figure out why or to stop it; finally Garrick said, "I kind of like it -- very avant-garde. Stop worrying about it and go with the flow." Sure, why not?
They started on time, not because they already had a crowd -- though five friends and a few residents didn't seem so bad -- but because adding the tunes Paulie had previously vetoed gave them a forty-five-minute setlist after all. While they were banging through "Just Like Me," their set opener, Paulie came in. When Albert soloed, Paulie heckled him. When Garrick sang the out chorus, he was heckled too. When the song was over and Albert -- who used light-gauge strings, and thus had to re-tune after every song -- held up the band with at least two minutes of micro-adjustments, interspersed with taxi dispatcher announcements coming through Walter's amp -- Paulie really cut loose. "What is this shit? Play already. You suck so bad, it doesn't matter whether you're in tune or not. Get it over with as fast as possible and spare us."
And then the largest human being Walter had ever seen in person walked away from the punchbowl table and moved towards the stage until he was standing right behind Paulie. "Who is this asshole?" the man-mountain inquired.
"A disgruntled ex-member," Walter replied.
"Alright then." Man-mountain put his hand, which was the size of a baseball glove, on Paulie's shoulder and said, "Let's go outside," then started walking towards the door. Paulie, slowly propelled that way in spite of his resistance, shouted, "Let go of me, you big ape!" This only got him pushed faster. When they were out the door, somebody by the punch yelled, "Big Ben strikes again!" and there were cheers. Dave counted off, the band launched into "Submission," and the cheering got louder. When the song was over and Albert started tuning again, Garrick filled the musical gap by chanting, "Big Ben! Big Ben!" over and over. Ben, who had returned without Paulie, raised his punch up in salute and there were more cheers. For the rest of their set, Garrick filled the space between songs by telling the most horribly dirty jokes Walter had ever heard, such as, "Why are women's pussies and assholes so close together? So you can carry them like a six-pack." They all got cheers from the frat guys.
When their set was over, they moved their instruments to the side, got cups of punch, and looked around for their friends. Walter's only pal present was Carlton, who said, "Nice job." "Thanks for coming!" Walter replied, briefly but silently wondering why more of his other friends -- say, Martial or Marcus -- hadn't shown up for this milestone performance, until realizing that most of his friends, and all his closest friends, were musicians who either had their own gigs on a Friday night or had perhaps felt obliged to attend a different friend's show instead.
He saw Albert standing by himself, none of his friends having made the long ride uptown from NYU, apparently. Wait, not even Tony who was also Walter's friend? "Where's Tony?"
"He said he was going home to Long Island this weekend."
"Hey, you did a great job on just one rehearsal, thanks!"
"Glad you liked it. Um, can you give me cab fare? I couldn't carry my amp and guitar on the subway and then play because it makes my hands tired and my fingers shake."
Walter had, as always on Fridays, taken enough out of his account to last the weekend. He gave Albert twenty dollars. It meant no record shopping in the Village that weekend, but he was more than grateful enough to Albert that it seemed a good trade-off. Albert thanked him and then left with his equipment. That made Walter think about his own situation. Garrick had helped him carry his keyboards and amp across the street, but he was eagerly chatting up the only woman in the room who wasn't clinging to a resident. Carlton was still hanging around, though, and agreed to help Walter. They both wanted to hear the headliner, so they rushed across the street, dumped it all back in their room, and then returned just in time to see Garrick get slapped by the woman he'd been talking to, after which, red-faced, he stalked out silently, acknowledging nobody. Easy for him; he didn't have any equipment -- even the mike he'd used was Walter's.
The rest of the evening was good music, lots of punch, and Walter's realization that of course a frat was not a good place to meet women. Then Carlton pointed out that he didn't want Walter barfing on the bedroom floor again, so they stopped drinking and, once the music finished, went back to their home away from home, lovely Carman Hall.
The next day, Walter called Albert to set up their next rehearsal, at which they planned to start working on the original material with Garrick's words and Walter's music. To his surprise, Albert quit instead, saying it was too far to travel and that Garrick wasn't a good singer and told awful jokes. Walter, stunned, just thanked him for having helped them out.
He immediately called the other band members, each in turn expressing disappointment but saying that with midterms on the horizon, they were in no rush to restart with another guitarist even if one were available. Walter was especially surprised by how unfazed Garrick was. He wondered if the slap had something to do with it, but diplomatically refrained from raising the topic. Since he'd left with his gear before it happened, he supposed that Garrick might not even know that Walter had witnessed it.
At the Marlin that night, the musician crowd was abuzz with the news of the Paulie/Big Ben incident. Even though nobody there had been present to Walter's knowledge, it figured that the Phi Eps and the musicians were sharing intelligence, and that the widely disliked Paulie's comeuppance met with approval. The buzz also served to let the music crew know that The Living Section had had a successful debut, and Walter felt he had risen in their esteem as a result. For the moment, he remained mum about the guitarist situation.
Eventually, he saw that Roland and Jessica were sitting at the back. Walter had never seen either of them in the Marlin before. There was another guy at their table who he vaguely recognized; Roland was deep in conversation with the stranger, and they were apparently not including Jessica, or she was not interested in being included; she progressed from looking bored to looking miserable. At one point she noticed Walter looking at her; he quickly averted his gaze.
Jimbo and Martial came in and greeted Walter by buying him beers; later he reciprocated. After at least an hour of beer and banter, with Walter occasionally checking the back table in his peripheral vision, he saw movement -- all three were standing, then Jessica abruptly and awkwardly sat again.
"You're drunk!" Roland hissed. "Just stay here until you can walk." He and his friend stalked out, leaving Jessica looking shocked and sad.
"What a dick!" Jimbo said.
"Do you know her?" Martial asked.
Walter nodded. "Excuse me, I'm going to see if she wants some help."
He sat down at her table. "On behalf of all other men, please accept our apology for the behavior of that one." It was the only sentence that had run through his head on the short walk over that hadn't been immediately dismissed. She smiled at him and whispered, "Thanks."
"Are you okay? Want some help walking home?"
"I...I don't know. I guess...I was bored, they weren't talking to me, so I guess I drank a little more than usual. I'm...so...embarrassed."
"It happens. I bet everybody in this bar has done that at least once. I know I have. Nothing to be embarrassed about."
"Roland is...particular. He -- can we leave?"
Walter stood and held out his arm to her. She pulled herself up and clung to him as they slowly made their way through the crowd, Walter saying "excuse me" every few feet. Once they were out on the sidewalk, going up Broadway, she began moving better.
"You don't seem too drunk," he observed.
"The fresh air's an improvement."
Walter wanted to ask why Roland treated her like that. He wanted to tell her that if he, Walter, were her boyfriend, she would be protected, not abandoned. But he didn't dare. He didn't think she wanted to discuss it, for one, and it didn't feel like the right setting for a declaration of love. Love? How could he love her when this was only the second time they had talked? Yet he did feel protective towards her. Confused, he figured his best move was to keep quiet, not taking any chances, and see whether she might be attracted to him in the future.
As they approached 114th Street, Jessica let go of his arm. Almost immediately she stumbled and grabbed him again. When they walked into Carman, she hesitated and looked around as they walked to the elevator. Once it came, Walter pushed the button for 11. "No," she blurted. He looked at her in surprise. She had a look of fear. "Can I make a phone call from your room?"
"Sure," he answered, wondering who she would call. Roland? He pushed the button for 10.
Once in his suite, she made a beeline for the Centrex phone in the inner hall, if by "beeline" one meant nudging him in the direction she wanted to go while still clinging to him for support. She dialed four digits and waited.
"Hey Angela, do me a big, big favor. Go outside and inconspicuously check whether Roland is hanging out in his doorway or in the lounge." There was a pause in which Angela was presumably talking. "Um, I guess go towards the stairs and if you don't see him, go back to the phone and tell me. But if he is, come down to 10. Uh -- Walter, what room is this?"
"1013." Pause. "I don't know, we'll talk about it."
She stood there, leaning against the wall, with the phone to her ear. In a minute, there was a knock at the door. Walter answered it. The woman at the door walked in and said, "He's in the lounge, right in the center."
"Oh my god, what do I do?"
"Well, you could just ignore him. What the fuck happened?"
Jessica recounted the evening's events. When she was done, Angela said, "Thank you, Walter. Unlike Roland, you are a true gentleman."
Walter smiled and responded, "Happy to help," but then he saw Jessica, who looked on the verge of tears, and he stopped smiling. Angela made a motion with her head, and Walter took the hint and went into his room. Carlton wasn't there. Walter closed the door and sat on his bed, trying to hear the conversation in the hall, but couldn't. After a few minutes, there was a knock and both girls came in. Angela spoke. "Is it okay if Jessica sleeps here? We're sort of assuming once she starts sleeping, it'll be hours before she wakes up, so probably all night."
"Thanks. You're awesome. I can't go back upstairs for a while, so can you come keep me company in the lounge?"
"Which bed is yours?"
Walter pointed. Angela gave Jessica a hug and then grabbed Walter's hand, dragging him out. She continued to the lounge, which was empty until they both sat on the couch. She faced him.
"Thank you. You seem like a nice guy. Please stay a nice guy and don't take advantage of Jessica's condition."
"I would never do that."
"I hope not."
Walter turned on the TV. Mary Tyler Moore was on 11. They watched it wordlessly to its end.
"Okay, I think it's been long enough. If Roland isn't still there, I'll come back and get Jessica. But if he is, and I don't come back, she'll sleep in your bed tonight. What will you do?"
"I'll sleep at my desk."
"Thanks for being a good guy." She put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it while smiling, then left.
Back in his room, Walter saw Jessica was sound asleep, or passed out. Was there a difference? He turned out the light and sat at his desk. By the light coming in the window -- the shade was up -- he could look over the desk and see her, lying on her side, he noted approvingly, having heard how Hendrix had died. She was near the edge; there was room for him to sleep on the wall side. His desk chair was hard and had a low back; to sleep, he would have to put his head on his arms on the desk, if he moved his piano off it, or on the piano. He had said he'd sleep at his desk, so he would. He wanted no misunderstanding. As much as he had a "type," it was "female musician." He'd been sorely disappointed that his interactions with Janie and Rachel had not led in either case to a relationship. Maybe the key was to build the relationship before going to bed. That was, after all, the way it was supposed to happen, or so he had been raised. And surely Jessica would break up with Roland, and become "available." Probably he shouldn't do anything soon; tonight might have been too traumatic for her. So, he should just be available himself, and wait, and hope that she would realize what a nice boyfriend he would be.
When the sun woke Walter in the morning, Jessica was gone. Still tired, he pulled the shade down and got into his bed. He could smell her faintly on his pillow. Carlton's bed was still empty.
The next afternoon, when Walter went up to 11 to visit Garrick, he saw Jessica in the TV lounge and waved. No response. Maybe she hadn't noticed him -- though he thought she had. He knocked on Garrick's door. Olivier, the French roommate, answered and said Garrick wasn't in.
Walter walked down the hall to the lounge and said "Hi" when he was right outside it. Jessica said nothing, and on entering two steps later, Walter saw Roland sitting to her right. "Looking for someone?" Roland sneered.
"Garrick. Seen him?"
Walter walked away, thinking, again, that he just didn't understand women. He was starting to suspect that he never would.
Roman AkLeff says of Music and Sex, his third attempt at a novel: "Lots of the events depicted in this book happened, to varying degrees. Some should have happened but didn't until now. Though it's mostly set in the 20th century, Music and Sex aspires to be a Bildungsroman for 21st century sensibilities, in that the main character doesn't finish coming of age until he is several decades into adulthood."