Practice What You Preach

Sweat was creeping down my neck. Pacing backstage, I knew I was screwed. I was on in five minutes and I couldn’t remember any of the notes…any of them. I’d rehearsed and rehearsed—but this was real. Everyone I knew was sitting on the other side of that door and I didn’t even know if my guitar was in tune. Closing my eyes, I tried to remember my song.

“Nice guitar,” a vaguely familiar voice said, “Want me to tune it?”

Alex Skolnick!? What was he doing at the Lake Howell Talent Show? Did he know one of the fire eaters? Or maybe the guy who played Chopin with his toes?

I nodded and he kicked back with my ’71 Les Paul while I fought for air, feeling my heart eating itself with fear as the roar of the crowd sucked me closer to what was sure to be a most horrific death.

Why did I keep doing this? Signing up for these things knowing I couldn’t play? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. I’d fall on my face and everyone would know there was nothing to me. Just coffee, hair, and air.

“All done,” he said handing it back. I strapped it on while a girl I knew ran past me wearing a leotard and a flowered swim cap.

“I can’t do this,” I said out loud.

“Sure you can,” Alex said.

“No,” I said, hyperventilating,” I really can’t. I can’t play this thing. People think I can but I can’t. I used to play, but I was young then. I could do anything. I ate bread and didn’t floss and rode motorcycles. Now I’m old and everyone will laugh.”

Applause shook the stage door.

I knew I had to choose: Walk out there, not knowing a single note—or run. But then, suddenly, it came back to me! I saw the chords. Felt my hands making the shapes! God damnit, I wanted this. I’d wanted it my whole life and I was DOING IT. I took a deep breath, nodded to Alex, and reached for the door…

Motherfu—!!!

Where were my pants?

 

I’ve had that dream for 20 years. Alex Skolnick was a new twist (I’d just read his blog that day), but not surprising as there’s always an impressive guest list: Ace Frehley (usually drunk); Joe Perry (really nice); Max Cavalera (brought a sandwich); etc.

Of course it’s about fear. Fear of failure, embarrassment, change. Whatever’s on the daily docket, I can turn it into a REM-cycle rock opera rivaling Ann-Margret in beans.

But I don’t want to have that dream anymore.

I don’t want to be afraid of taking the stage.

When Carrie Fisher died—which I still can’t even type without stopping to get a grip before moving on to my next breath or motor skill—I realized how much I’d depended on her. Which wasn’t fair. We’d never met.

But since Postcards From The Edge (which I read in high school), I’d considered her a best friend. Not in a creepy Jennifer Jason Leigh/matching pixie cuts way, but in a Who’s the one person on the planet I know would understand if I said I couldn’t meet for lunch because my living room was eating me? way. 

As a bonus, she railed against all the right things and made me laugh out loud in work meetings (which she probably would’ve loved) when I thought of lines like, “Someone is staring at you in ‘personal growth’” (When Harry Met Sally) or the classic Liz Taylor “consolation” quote (Google it).  

Mostly, she was the first woman to ever…EVER give me the idea that, “Hey…maybe it would be helpful if I get this monumental, melon-sized cyst of insecurity out of my system through…I don’t know…writing? Instead of binge-drinking with Nachos Bell Grande?”

That alone might be how I survived my twenties.

But, even with a friend like Carrie Fisher by my side, the stage fright remained. Once, in another life where I wore babydoll dresses and thought Keanu Reeves was my soul mate (actually, to be honest, I still do), I was invited to audition for a band. Not just any band—THE local band. The coolest kids in town who I knew, haphazardly, through the record store. Word was around that I was “a rock chick who jammed,” and I loved the rep. As long as I never had to prove it.

Long story short, after weeks of excuses (“I have the flu; My dog ate a lamp; My grandmother dropped acid and freaked out and hijacked a school bus full of penguins”), the jig was up. I drove to their practice space, plugged in…flexed my knuckles…and sucked worse than any guitar player has ever sucked before or since.

Not because I couldn’t play. I wasn’t great, but I had rhythm. My problem was I couldn’t play outside my bedroom. 

And thus the recurring dream began.

When I started submitting magazine articles, the first one struck gold and I saw my first by-line in a local rag dedicated to the Orlando Magic (I was a fan). That was soon followed by countless CD and concert reviews, band bios, and even a press kit I was told garnered a shout out from Johnny Z, who apparently said, “Who wrote this? This is great!” (Johnny Z founded Megaforce Records and launched the career of Metallica, among others). 

Then I got dissed by Writer’s Digest. Writer’s Freaking Digest, which is like Martha Stewart Living for people who write Game of Thrones fan fiction. That was all it took. I stopped writing for years. I couldn’t handle another rejection letter because I believed they held more truth than anything I might tell myself.

Well, guess what? It’s 2017 and the world may or may not be coming to an end, and I’ve been on a diet since 1983, and my hair still doesn’t look like Doro Pesch’s (Google her), and I never wrote for Kerrang!, and my living room still threatens to swallow me from time to time when my anxiety grabs me by the proverbial not-going-there and puts me in a corner where the only voices I hear are everyone who’s ever snubbed me for my thighs or my mind, which scares them shitless because, much like my mentor, I’m saner with my “crazy” than any of the perfect people I see stuffing their pie holes with “faster” and “more” to avoid talking to themselves. 

So I’ve decided this is the year I walk onto that stage, whether it’s submitting a book or moving to another state (or both). This isn’t a resolution (although I have given up Coke Life because I had three last night, and at 4am I could hear my cells dividing). 

This is me, not giving into The Dark Side. And let me tell you, if there was an emoji for the last three years of my life, it would be Grand Moff Tarkin, sneering. 

I need to tune my own guitar and find my legs so I can walk through that stage door, get lost David St. Hubbins-style, find the lights, pass the PA, and make it all the way to “x marks the spot.” 

And what will I play when my pick hits the strings? Whatever the hell I want.

Let’s just hope I’m wearing pants.

Stop Your Sobbing

Breaking up with someone you hate is like an open bar in Cabo. Breaking up with someone you love is more like checking into Bellevue. The first day, you’re so high, your brain overrides your body. You sing disco and think, “Damn STRAIGHT, mother trucker!”

By Day Seven, you’re texting your friends at 2am, ugly crying with snot sliding into your bra, sending them a three-page letter you’ve written to your ex. A letter that explains everything: Who you are; who you thought he was; how he could win you back. 

Your friends talk you out of sending that letter. You say you’ve deleted it. But you accidentally saved it somewhere without meaning to. Because by Day Seven you know your brain is beyond your reach, and your heart—that raging alcoholic asshole that got you into this mess—is running the ward like Nurse Ratched, tapping its talons on a trusty syringe that whispers this can all, easily, be fixed.

You hide his photos. Archive his chats. Stuff everything he ever gave you into an Amazon cardboard box. You seal it up with packing tape and stick it in the back of a closet behind the comforter that makes you itch. Unless a four-alarm fire breaks out, you will not touch that box. You will not (to bastardize Nick Cave) release the bats.

After two weeks you can walk outside. The sun still hurts your face because it’s a reminder that life is moving on. Flowers are growing. Dogs are peeing. People are eating free-range chicken and having sex. But you can tolerate hot air against your skin and lawn mowers mindlessly grinding without wanting to run inside and turn back time. “Now” becomes the norm and “then” is an airplane high in the sky, gliding farther and farther away to a place you were never meant to be. 

If you make it out of the first month you’ve got a shot, but you won’t see the summit. You’ll either be a lot skinnier or a lot fatter and, if you’re a girl, you’ll probably own three new pairs of shoes, and—possibly—the as-seen-on-TV Ab Coaster Max (complete with diet guide). Food won’t taste good. Booze won’t get you buzzed. It’ll all go down your throat, but the hole hasn’t begun to heal.

People will start telling you how to fix it: Kombucha! Kettlebells! Meet someone new! They mean well, but you just want to go to sleep and wake up when he’s dead. You don’t literally want him dead…but if he’s dead he’ll never date someone new. Someone who isn’t complicated like you. Damn those simple girls and their smug conceited smiles. They sneer up at you from high school yearbooks, where they learned to play men like Yo-Yos, but they never (to quote Stevie) cried out loud.

Your house will begin to haunt you.  

By the six-week mark, you’ll translate an absence of blood-signed love letters delivered by swans as a telltale sign that you are, in essence, expired. You’ll be ten years older overnight, and the sickly purple skin under your eyes will be Macbeth spots. No matter how much tinted concealer you dab and dab, the ruptured vessels will come roaring back.

For the first time in your life you’ll consider Botox and Restylane and scalpels at your neck. You’ll watch infomercials at 4am, wide-eyed with wonder at what a fat freeze could do. You’ll go blonder. No darker. No blonder. No longer. Extensions and highlights and thickening creams. But the letters won’t come and the only thing landing in your front yard will be an empty toilet paper tube that didn’t make it into the garbage truck.

Then, you’ll have two weeks where you’ll write a novel, bake a lot of cake, learn to play Achilles Last Stand, organize your makeup in order of daily use, and map out your fiscal projections for the next ten years complete with designated nest egg for that cozy London flat. (“I read half of Exodus!” – Steve Dunne, Singles)

Then the crying will start again, usually between 2-4am while you’re lying on your side in smelly pajama pants you’ve worn for a week, watching Forensic Files with a bag of Stacy’s pita chips. Why is nighttime the worst? Because that’s when the world is quiet and you can hear them forgetting you.   

But, somewhere in the questions you hide from your friends (because, at this point, they’re sick of it), you’ll start to hear a voice. At first you won’t think it’s yours because you can’t push a cart through the Cookies, Crackers and Soup aisle without sobbing the second “I’ll Stand By You” comes on. You’ll think you’re weak because if he ever showed up, Lloyd Dobbler-style, you’d be wrapped around him before he could push “play.” So you assume it’s someone else telling you that you still kick serious ass, and that you should go to that dive bar up the street and have a beer with some friends.

A few days later, you’ll go for a drive. Just a short one, but you’ll blast an iTunes mix of Clash, C.O.C., and Judas Priest. You’ll push the windows down because the soupy heat is thinning, giving way to a breeze. You’ll relish the steering wheel in your hands, tires spitting gravel as you go absolutely nowhere but everywhere in your mind. You’ll do this again the next day. And the next. You will not eat an entire block of cheese. 

One day, and it’ll be a beautiful day, you’ll be lacing up your shoes on your way out the door. It doesn’t matter where, but trust me on this next thing: Your hair will look fabulous. Don’t ask me why, but it will. You’ll open up your car door, throw in your purse, and check your mail. And there it’ll be. Handwritten, long, full of words you would’ve gauged out a lung for six months ago. You’ll stand in your driveway reading it—birds chirping, lawn mowers humming.

You’ll slide it back inside the envelope and put it in your purse. Words like “someday” and “love” and “future”—which you would’ve tattooed to yourself before—will tickle your face like a few loose hairs (a few fabulous hairs) as you put your car in gear, picture his beautiful face, and drive away from that house.

Homeward Bound Part 3

Part 3: All My Words Come Back To Me

In the movie Singles, Debbie Hunt says, “Desperation: It’s the world’s worst cologne.” I’m pretty sure the stink was steaming off me before my plane hit the ground.

Back in Florida. Again. This time well past the tragedy and trauma. I was in my early forties, had lived all over the country, traveled to Europe three times on my own, and was about to start a job with one of the top entertainment corporations in the world.

Sure, I had a few ticks. Who doesn’t by forty? Nothing a little therapy couldn’t kick. This time it would be different. My job was better. My apartment was better. And I was reconnecting with old friends.

For six months, I started to think the Florida jinx was done. Work was a dream. My friends and I reminisced with old CDs. Even the heat was bearable. It was disgusting…but bearable.

I drove along familiar streets: the cobblestones of Summerlin; the blue lakes of Loch Haven; the shady haze of Maitland. When the sun splattered itself across sleepy palms it seemed to be saying, “I told you we would make it.”

But sure enough, one day, a rock hit my car. I was coming home from work when I felt the crack. Flying down the 408, my feet went completely numb. Then my heart started to stick, like Hulu with bad WiFi. The terror would grip me and squeeze—then freeze—then surge through my veins. I knew my hands were next and then my eyes would blur.

I made it home. And I was okay after an hour or two. Still…even though it was invisible to the naked eye, I knew it was there—a spot on the glass that was only going to spread.

Unlike my imaginary bestie, Valerie Bertinelli, I don’t have my own cooking show, but if I did, here’s a recipe I’d share:

Hopeless Homecoming
Ingredients

Several old friends
A few broken dreams
Chronic insomnia
Fading nostalgia
Anxiety
Stress
Weed
*

Preheat the climate to 99 degrees (F). You’ll know the humidity level is right when birds start falling out of the sky and you hear the Devil say, “Honey! I’m home!”

Mix all ingredients except weed in a medium-sized room until well blended. It may look lumpy at this point but that’s okay.

*Optional: For those, like me, who don't partake, substitute imported beer. I recommend Stella, Guinness, or anything from England.

Once mixture begins to boil, fold in weed (or beer), reduce to a simmer, and break out the tunes.

 

It’s nobody’s fault. It’s near impossible for friends to weather decades and stick together like peanut butter and jelly with the crusts cut off.

Still, much like poker, no one wants to fold. No one wants to be the first to say, “We’re not who we were in 1986.” Marriage, divorce, babies, drugs…they plane youth into a smooth memory, devoid of the puke and tears that made the moments real.

This is why you can’t go home again: The past is too distant to change and the present is too painful to bear.

I don’t sit in the sun anymore. Or drive around the lakes. I don’t drink with old friends and talk about that time we did that thing, Bonham bashing out behind us while we second-guess each other’s hands.

I’m in suspended animation, not quite here but not yet there. Wherever there is. I’ve finally made peace with my past and let the old ghosts go. Maybe that’s why I had to come back this time, to see their eyes and set them free.

I don’t know where I’m going, but I know what I want to find. I see it in flickers—Colonial brick, green leafy streets, and sweater weather air that hugs my lungs. A Target would be nice. You really can get everything you need at Target. And no matter what my mom says, I trust their produce.

Maybe that’s what a home really is: A place where you can breathe the air and eat the fruit. And if we’re throwing in a Target, a park would be nice, too. A lush, shady place with hundred-year trees that look like relatives you almost remember, watching over you while you walk.  

In a park—without palm trees or snakes or ominous shapes in the lake—my blue skin would glow with a warm peachy sheen. The farther I walked, the healthier I’d get, and pretty soon, I wouldn’t need nicotine to keep me from falling asleep.

I can quit anytime I want, you know.

Homeward Bound Part 2

Part 2: Every Stranger’s Face I See

As Rob Zombie so eloquently said in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, “No one wants to be the weird kid; you just somehow end up being the weird kid and wonder how you got there.”

By my second year (sixth grade) in Orlando, the verdict was in: I was a weird kid. Oh, I tried to hide it with knockoff Gloria Vanderbilt jeans (in bright orange because that was the only color Marshall’s had left) and crunchy feathered hair, but I was odd, oafy and shy. My teachers liked me. I got straight A’s, but that just dumped gasoline on my suicidal social pyre.

At home, the neighborhood girls held me down and drew on my face with Magik Markers to show me who was boss. Sometimes they dunked me in their above-ground pools, laughing until I thrashed and kicked.

I missed Frances and field trips to The Smithsonian and the elephant house at The National Zoo. I missed Baltimore’s huge, fairy tale libraries, and dry smoky leaves.

None of the new girls read Little Women or Watership Down. They read Seventeen and the forbidden Judy Blume. So I started reading Seventeen and bought Avon perfume in glass decanters shaped like teddy bears because that’s what they had on their dressers next to their eyeliner and padded bras.

One day, after school, a small crowd was forming outside a run-down white trash house. It was the next neighborhood over. I pulled my bike beside Darlene, a Lenny–Grapes of Wrath type who loved to talk about sex and horses (not together).

“What’s up,” I asked.

“Vicki’s in there,” she said, “Letting a bunch of guys screw her.”

Vicki was thirteen. A year older than me. She wasn’t Mensa material, but last I’d heard, she was still a virgin.

“Why?” I asked, feeling a queasy type of fear.

Darlene, also 13, lit a cigarette, “She likes Bobby but he said he’d only go with her if she screwed him…and his friends.”

That was the night I asked my dad for a drum kit. From then on, the weird kid answered to Stewart Copeland. Turned out, he was a fabulous BFF (and cute as a button). If I’d gone on to be a star, this is where I’d play up the “music saved my life” motif. I never even joined a band (see above, “oafy and shy”). But music did save my life. And the more hellish Florida got, the angrier it became.

Age: 13
Look:
Baby fat, head gear, Dorothy Hamill hairdo
Music of Choice: The Police, Def Leppard Pat Benatar

Highlight of the Year: Steve Spalding announces to my entire fifth period Geography class that the love of my life, a blonde, Izod-wearing surfer named Teddy Jenks, thinks I am—and I quote—“ugly as shit.” The room erupts in laughter as I dig my nails into my hand to keep from crying.

 

Age: 14
Look:
Less baby fat, braces, checkered Vans
Music of Choice: AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest

Highlight of the Year: Changing in the locker room when skinny Libby Pittman surrounds me with her merry band of shabby whores to laughingly announce that my first real boyfriend, Mike Hahn, who I’d been “going with” for months despite the fact that he’d only spoken to me twice, had—in fact— “gone with me on a bet.” Everyone knew.

 

Age: 18
Look:
Bulimia, bleached hair, concert tees
Music of Choice: Metallica, Anthrax, Fates Warning

Highlight of the Year: The guy I lose my virginity to ends up cheating on me with a girl who works at the Twistee Treat in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. I glean this intel on the same day my parents announce they’re getting a divorce. 

 

Age: 21
Look:
Black tights, jean shorts, flannel shirt
Music of Choice: L7, Rage Against the Machine, Ministry

Highlight of the Year: One of my best friends, someone I’d scraped off the floor and stitched together so many times I knew all his secrets, tells me he’d rather I didn’t hang around when his new, cool friends come by because—quote—“I embarrass him.”

 

Somewhere after that last one I decided Fuck Florida. Sure, it could’ve happened if I'd been in Boston, but I needed a scapegoat and that stupid, sweaty truck stop fit the bill.

Chill out, Dude.

I was trapped in a never-ending Molly Hatchet song playing inside the mind of a redneck rapist, hungover and half-drunk in a t-shirt stained with B.O. and Taco Bell sauce, scratching his balls with one hand and cleaning his gun with the other.

I had to get out.

So I did. I ran away. But they dragged me back. I ran away again. Rinse, repeat. Pretty soon, I realized (a) Florida was the Death Star and I was caught in its tractor beam, or (b) There was a major life lesson to be learned from making peace with my past.  

But we all know the saying, “You can’t go home again.”

And what kind of crushing weight does it take on if the home you’re going home to was never your home?

I was about to find out.

...to be continued