Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story,”Born on the Edge of an Adjective”. It’s a story about two lovers who can’t get it together, one of whom moves across the country to find himself, and is instead found by a different sort of love, an alien love. I mean that, too. An alien love, though you won’t be able to tell just how alien from this excerpt, which will seem fairly realistic. The story originally appeared in the very cool zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
Born on the Edge of an Adjective
“I was born on the edge of an adjective,” Neil tells me from San Francisco. He’s calling on his new cell phone. He bought it because he thought it would add a little something to his image, but now he’s not so sure. “Everywhere I look, people have these stupid things,” he says. “I didn’t realize till I had one of my own.”
“You were what?” I ask.
“I was born on the edge of an adjective,” he tells me. “That’s for you,” he says, and pauses to drag on his cigarette. “For your next song. At least a line, if not the title.”
Neil’s calling from a bar called the Shamrock, which he’s frequented since leaving Youngstown behind. In the background of his voice, the crack of pool and the sound of eighties music. I can almost smell the smoke, see the haze. Neil hates eighties music, so I’m wondering why he’s there. I’m wondering why he isn’t here with me.
“That’s a great line,” I say. I don’t tell him that I don’t write songs anymore. That when he left, the music went with him, that I haven’t written since. “You should write it,” I tell him, and light a cigarette for myself.
“That’s your thing, Marco,” he says, and it still sends a thrill through my body to hear that name, instead of just Marc or Marcus. Only Neil calls me something different from everyone else.
“So when are you coming back?” I ask, then immediately revise my question. “When are you going to visit?”
“You know I can’t, Marco,” he says. “I can’t come back, at least not for a while. I have to find out who I am. Ohio only obscures it. We’ve gone over all this before. Besides, I’m unboyfriendable. You need someone better than me. Someone solid.”
I nod in agreement, even though Neil can’t see. He went a thousand miles away to find himself, which sounds lame as a talk show conversation, but he did it, and I still can’t help but ask when this self-imposed exile is going to end. Neil might not know himself, but I could tell him. I know who he is, he’s just not listening. But when do any of us listen to what others have to say? I don’t write music anymore. I only listen. If Neil asked me, I could sing him his song.
“I have to get going,” Neil says impatiently. There’s the click of his lighter and the exhale of smoke. “I have a date with this woman. I need to meet her on the other side of town.”
“A woman?” I ask.
“She’s cool,” Neil says. “A dancer, real light on her feet. It’s like gravity has no effect on her.”
“So she floats? That’s pretty amazing,” I say.
“Seriously, Marco, she made me practice lifting her for her next recital. It was like picking up a teacup. An empty teacup. You would like her. Don’t be a cynic. She’s our type.”
“That’s great,” I say. I tell him, “Call me soon,” and put the phone down on its cradle. I turn up the radio, thinking she is not our type, not mine at least, and I wouldn’t like her. I already hate this woman, Neil, and she’s probably a bad dancer. Her legs are skinny like a flamingo’s, and her hair is most likely blonde. Also, she floats. People who float aren’t people. It’s like a law or something. No floating for humans.
Neil likes his men different from his women. He prefers his men quietly smoldering, with dark eyes and thick hair. He likes his women blonde and loud as ambulances, with legs up to their chins. He used to read books with grand plots and lifeless characters. Now he reads books without plots that have grand characters, who think a lot throughout most of the book.
Take my hand, I want to tell him. Let me lead you through the hall of mirrors. I know your way. If I were alone, I’d be lost myself. But with you, I see the way clearly.
He wonders who he is, what it means to live in this world, how he’s supposed to be. I’ve seen him clap his hands over his ears, as if the world grew too loud suddenly, and he sank down on my bed and curled into a fetal position. He wants to know what he’s like, where he’s going, where he’s been. He’s a blank slate, he tells me, a tabula rasa. But this is not true. A more accurate description is possible.
He was like a book left behind by some weary traveler, in a country where no one knows how to read.
Take my hand, I want to tell him. Even though I’m blind on my own, I can see your path clearly.
Where are you going? Where have you been? These questions were our constant conversation. The first time we met, we were both at The Blue Note, one of the bars where the band I wrote songs for sometimes played. They still have an ongoing gig there, but I don’t stop very often. They leave messages, various members of Winterlong, the lead singer, the bass guitarist, the piano player, Harry, who always says they’re going downhill and need an injection of something new and different. “Give me a call, Marcus,” he says. “Let’s get together on something.”
Neil was standing at the bar, in front of an empty stool, drinking from a pony-necked bottle. I sat three stools down. Finally, after the band took a break, he walked over, sat beside me, and, without looking at me, said, “The songs are good, but they need a new singer.” I laughed involuntarily, almost spitting out a mouthful of beer.
“Really?” I said, grinning.
“And the songs? What makes them more deserving?”
“They’re full of raw emotion. The lead singer doesn’t know how to get that across.”
It was something I’d heard other people say about someone else’s music. Something you might read in a review, or hear on a college campus amongst earnest but not so humble students. But Neil was flattering. This quality is a necessary attractor. I was attracted, I cannot lie.
We went home that night together, after the band stopped playing, after closing down the Blue Note, and when we woke in the morning, him lying on his stomach, me flat on my back, his arm flung over my chest, I told him that I was the song writer.
“I knew that,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you knew I knew. Really, don’t act so innocent.”