Von Maur

The walk from his usual handicap spot to the entrance was getting harder and harder for old George Schumann. The snow and ice certainly didn’t help. It not only slowed him down, but put him at severe risk of injury. His tote bag overstuffed with sheet music, and a cane that seemed to be more trouble than it was worth only managed to make his walk more cumbersome. George was never one to let anything get in the way of doing the things that mattered most, especially since his gig as Von Maur’s resident pianist was his single source of joy.

It had been almost a year to the day when he slipped on the sidewalk outside his apartment, fracturing his wrist. And it was during his recovery that inadvertently landed him this gig to begin with – smack dab in the middle of the worst depression since his wife had passed twenty years prior. Fortunately, his buddy Frank made sure to check in on him from time to time, bringing along with him food and bawdy jokes.

And then one day, news that the local Von Maur was looking to hire a pianist.

“It helps to sleep with the current pianist from time to time,” Frank said, referring to his part-time lover Dolores, who was finally retiring after 15 years on the job.

“Maybe you should give it a go!”

“Are you kidding me?” George said, looking out the window of his 5th floor senior living apartment – which was how he spent most of his days recuperating from his injury.

An octogenarian Rear Window.

Thankfully, the cast would be coming off in two days and George could at least get back to the one thing that gave him joy in life: tickling the ‘ol ivories. It was the only thing that made him feel young

Or, more specifically, ageless.

“Why not?” Frank asked.

“You know exactly why…”

“But you love playing. And when was the last time you played in front of an audience?”

“You know exactly when…” George said, bowing his head.

“Twenty years ago…”

“So why would I suddenly start again now?”

“Don’t you miss it?” Frank asked.

“It’s not like I don’t play anymore.”

“But not in front of an audience!”

“We’re talking about a mall here, right?”

“Exactly! Less pressure! So why not throw your hat in the ring?  Your music will be heard more there than inside this place, where your neighbors are half-deaf anyway!”

George shook his head, but didn’t let on that he was at least slightly intrigued.

“Oh, and Betty already gave supervisor in charge your number. So expect a call any day now.”

“What in the hell is wrong with you?”

“Just living life to the fullest, as usual. And hoping my best pal can, too.”

Two days later, just an hour after getting his cast removed, George received a phone call and a job offer. Initially, he turned it down. Three weeks later, he officially began his tenure as the new Von Maur resident pianist.

Five days a week.

Three hours a shift.

And damn how much his missed it!

Other than a sprinkling of ensembles he did for the local high school – and even that had been awhile now – it was difficult to fathom how long it had been.

George couldn’t remember the last time he felt this… alive.

And despite not having the rapt attention of an audience, this was nothing new. After all, bars and restaurants didn’t always lend themselves to a captive audience, either. So, this was familiar territory. But more laid back. And without the late hours.

Now, almost a full year into his gig, he couldn’t imagine going back to life before Von Maur. He felt such a deep, unexpected sense of comfort and familiarity. After all, it was his wife’s favorite store. She even bought her wedding dress there! In fact, since her death, he typically avoided going in there because he was worried the memories would flood his soul with melancholy. This actually factored into his initial reluctance to take the job. But as turned out, it had just the opposite effect! It made her feel closer to him. He never thought he could ever feel closer to her than he ever did.

And then there was the music itself– the very heart of his marriage. It was through music that they fell in love. And it was music that sustained their love through thick and thin. In sickness and in health. And in her death, music always made him feel closer to her than anything else. Only, her death also marked the death of his zest for improvisation. He could still play the old charts, mostly from memory – though lately, he found that he needed to rely on the charts more than his fading memory. Every note he played was dedicated in her honor and memory. And she never felt closer to him than she did while playing what he always referred to as “ol’ chestnuts” – a phrase that always made her laugh.

He missed her laughter the most. In truth, there was nothing he didn’t miss about her, but her laugh was her essence. And she never held back. She laughed often and heartily. And its absence put such a void in his heart. There was never a day when they didn’t laugh together.

The raging Michigan winter certainly wasn’t helping his mood. Especially this winter. One of the most brutal ones in recent memory. Polar vortex they called it. In his 81 years, he had never heard of a polar vortex.

First time for everything.

Aside from deluge of snow, he was having trouble fighting off the remnants of a nasty cold – a nagging cough no amount of his special hot toddies (his grandmother’s recipe) could help shake. As happy as this gig made him, he wondered how much longer he could keep at it. Perhaps the time had finally come to hang ‘em up for good. With spring just around the corner, he could spend more time outdoors, focusing on his – her –garden that he simply continued to maintain, even though gardening was something he shared no interest in while she was alive.

On this particular morning, with heavy snow in the forecast over the next several days and his cough seemingly worsening, the idea of calling it quits seemed more like a foregone conclusion than ever before.

George trudged his way through both the falling and already accumulated snow and entered the store, warmly greeting the security guard and scattered employees – even the ones who barely noticed him. He tried not to take it personally, but it was easier said than done. Customers ignoring him were one thing, but it saddened him that his own co-workers sometimes couldn’t muster a simple hello. Oh, well. Even if they didn’t appreciate him as a human being, he hoped his music was at least reaching them. And he wasn’t there to socialize anyway. He was there to play music. And at least most of his co-workers were friendly with him. And every once in awhile, a co-worker complimented his music. That always made his day.

And even though he had his standard repertoire, he liked to mix it up for his co-workers – as well as for himself. This also kept him fresh and on his toes.

However, on this particular morning, every one seemed less friendly than usual. The ones who usually ignored him, seemed to ignore him even more. And the ones who were normally friendly seemed less so. He chalked up to the weather. But hopefully his music could thaw out the ice that seemed to be permeating throughout the store.

George lumbered his way over to his “stage” underneath the escalator, took out a few songbooks, arranging them just so on the piano, and began to play his usual opener: “Daisy”. It was the first song he learned to play as a young boy, taught to him by his mother. It was also the first song he taught his wife. It had always been her dream to learn piano – growing up poor, she was never given the opportunity, despite begging her parents from the time she was five. But sometimes, life has a way of working itself out just so because it was through piano lessons that they ultimately fell in love.

He had many students over the years, but none were quite like his muse in terms of raw talent, and, of course, natural beauty (though he conceded to the notion that her beauty clouded his objectivity on the talent side of things).

After finishing up “Daisy”, he segued into “Stardust” – their wedding song, followed by a parade of ol’ chestnuts, including “My Funny Valentine”, “The Days of Wine & Roses” and “La Vie En Rose.”

His Valentine medley.

Of course, he knew most customers didn’t care what he played – let alone recognize anything. He did make attempts at playing “newer” stuff for the younger set, but this simply meant songs from the late 60’s.

The way some customers passed him by, he might as well have not been playing anything at all!

Most at least flashed a casual glance. A small handful would actually sit on the couch and listen – usually weary husbands more interested in their phones than hearing anything George had to play, as they waited for their wives to buy new undergarments that they would likely never see.

Whenever he felt himself getting frustrated or sad by the lack of attention from customers, he could at least take pride in doing his part to keep the music of his past alive – and by extension – keep her alive.

Of course, there were always his fellow old-timers who certainly appreciated his tunes. Weekday afternoons was when he was most likely to encounter them in droves. Especially for half-off Senior Matinee Wednesday at the multi-plex. They were the ones who either gave a knowing smile or nod, or sit down and listen intently to a song or two as they stopped for a much-needed rest. Recently, an old man sat down and began to weep as George played the overly sentimental “Misty”. A couple danced momentarily to “As Time Goes By.” These were the moments that made it all worth it. And kept him going.

He loved playing for children the best.

Children – and his fellow seniors – were the ones who paid the most attention – at least, until their parents pulled them away or scolded them for wandering off. They were drawn to the music like bugs to light.

George wished their parents would have more patience. How often do children these days get to hear music like this? Probably not too often. He knew it wasn’t his place, but if only he could convince them to let their children listen.

But then along came a precocious little curly-haired girl of about six or seven in a cute little dress adorned with flowers. George was mid-way through “Unforgettable” when he first spotted her, watching – listening – from the base of the escalator. A modern day Shirley Temple – the second coming of his first crush when he was just a young boy. It was no surprise that his wife always reminded him of a grown-up Shirley – ringlets and all. Her childhood photos was further proof.

George smiled at her. She smiled back, as George continued to tickle the ivories. He sensed that she was inching her way toward him, closer and closer, until she was standing right next to him, her little paws grabbing onto the piano

He was impressed at how intently she listened to the music. She certainly didn’t seem like other little girls her age.

Like a relic from the past.

Or…a ghost.

And she reminded him of exactly what he used to imagine his own daughter would have looked like. But children weren’t in the cards for them – certainly not by choice. God had other plans for them. He always does.

For his next song, without hesitation, George played the Shirley Temple classic “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. To his surprise and delight, the little girl started singing along to it! Though initially surprised, he realized it was probably because of how often she was told she resembled Shirley herself!

Passerby stopped and smiled at the magical duet unfolding before their eyes and ears. For all they knew, it was a planned act!

When the song came to an end, the little headed over to the couch. George broke into “Dream a Little Dream of Me”.

The little girl continued to listen intently, nodding her head along to the music. As the song drew near completion, George realized something: she appeared to be alone. As he continued to play, he scanned the surrounding area and saw no sign of who this little girl might belong to. But if she were lost, the little girl certainly wasn’t letting on!

He thought about asking her if she was lost, but didn’t seem to be in any sort of panic, so instead, he started playing “Over the Rainbow”.

Midway through, a frantic woman approached. It was very clear where the little girl’s curls came from.  But this woman was clearly, the grandmother.

She grabbed the little girl by the arm:

“You had me worried sick!”

“I have been here the whole time, Grandma! Listening to music!”

The woman looked over at George with daggers in her eyes, as though he was somehow to blame. When George smiled, their eyes locked and for a brief, fleeting, frozen moment in time, he had a feeling he knew all too well, but hadn’t felt since – well, the last time he had been in love.

The first time.

And only time.

But after the span of 3-4 seconds, the woman quickly reverted back to tending to her granddaughter and leading her by the hand toward the concourse, prompting George to begin playing “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

“Grandma, can we get a pretzel?” he overheard the little girl ask.

“After that stunt you pulled, I should say no. But it’s a good thing you’re so darn cute!

George continued watching them, realizing that his magical encounter was now a thing of the past.

Like everything else in his life.

Would they remember him like he would remember them?

And then, before disappearing out of sight, the little girl turned around and waved. George winked.

And then they were gone. And he realized he probably never see them again. It made him so sad.

Though he no longer had any doubt he made a lasting impression on the little girl, he wondered if the woman felt the same connection he did. Or, was she too distracted disciplining her granddaughter?

Maybe they would pass back through the store on their way out, but unless they were parked outside the Von Maur entrance, he knew it was unlikely. He looked at his watch. Another hour to go and it would be time to head home. Back into the cold. And the snow. And the same old chicken noodle soup he ate most nights.

The hour passed uneventfully, with one eye always on the lookout for his new friends. He ended his shift the way he always did – playing “My Way”.

He didn’t sleep very well that night. He couldn’t stop thinking about the lovely little girl and her equally lovely grandmother.

He awoke the next day with the sun shining in his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw the sun.

Following his usual breakfast of toast and coffee, he returned to work. The snow glistened in the sun, forcing him to squint.

Birds were chirping. Spring truly was around the corner. Not only did this mean warmer weather, but it also meant baseball.

And bringing his wife’s garden back to life.

Though it had only been 24 hours, what a difference a day makes! Especially as far as his mood was concerned. It wasn’t as much about the sun as it was about the little girl and her grandmother. Thinking about it filled his heart with so much joy.

George floated to his seat at the stool and entered into the solace of his musical sojourn, once again keeping one eye open for the little girl and her grandmother. Even in their absence, he hadn’t played with this much energy and zest since his first few weeks on the job.

Two hours into his shift, he began to accept that his encounter yesterday was what it was…fleeting. Now, it only served as a reminder of how lonely he actually was. It was nothing a meeting up with the fellas at the V.F.W. couldn’t fix.

He tried to focus his thoughts solely on his music. Following “Daisy”, he delved into the impressionistic “Claire De Lune” – another song he coached his wife through. It was her proudest moment.

George closed his eyes, and disappeared into the warm nostalgia of his past. A time when he never thought it possible to be alone.

With his eyes still closed, he brought the song to a close, keeping his eyes closed a moment longer as a small smattering of applause was heard coming from the couch.

Pleasantly startled, George opened his eyes.

And there, as though plucked right out of a dream, sat Shirley Temple and her grandmother on the couch adjacent to him.

“Why, hello there!” George said with genuine surprise.

The little girl waved, smiling enthusiastically.

“And what is your name?” George asked her.

“I’m Lillian.”

“Well, hello, Lillian!”

“What is your name?” she asked.

“You can call me Mr. George. And who is this young lady with you, little miss Lillian?”

“This is my Grandma. Her name is Dorothy.”

“Oh, hello Dorothy. Back for more shopping, I see?”

“No. She wanted to hear your music! She actually begged me to bring her!”

“Well, that just makes me so happy. What would you like to hear, Miss Lillian?”

“’Over the Rainbow’!”

“You got it”

George jumped right into it.

Lillian swayed her head back and forth to the music, even singing along in parts.

When he finished, they applauded once more.

“What next?” George asked.

“How about some ‘Stardust’”

George’s heart skipped a beat. Of all songs! For a brief moment, he considered saying no. Playing it would almost seem like…an act of betrayal.

But then he saw it as some sort of sign.

So he played it. For Dorothy. For Lillian.

But most of all, for his wife.

His audience sat and listened to another half dozen songs or so. When George finished playing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, Dorothy stood up.

“Well, Mr. George, we ought to get going. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Well, the pleasure’s been all mine. You have yourselves a great evening.”

“You, too.”

Dorothy smiled at him, as did Lillian.

Identical smiles, in fact.

Once again, George found himself heading toward the exit, only this time, it was out the Von Maur doors. Because it was their only destination. They came to hear him play and nothing could have filled his heart with more love.

When was the last time that happened?

He knew exactly when.

A lifetime ago.

When he first fell in love. She would come to café where he played every Saturday night just to listen to him play. With a book in hand. She loved to read as much as she loved music.

He turned his thoughts back to his present reality. Unlike yesterday, he was now certain he would see his new friends again. And it filled his heart with such warmth and purpose.

But was it fool’s gold? There was no way it could be real, was there? From the moment his wife passed away, he never thought himself capable of experiencing feelings such as this. And with it came a sense of guilt.  Perhaps it would be for the best if they didn’t come back.

Then again, why would he want that? What did he have to lose? He wished he told  them that he would be off the next couple of days. What if they came back looking for him tomorrow? He knew he shouldn’t dwell on such matters. But he couldn’t help it! He felt like a schoolboy again.

When he returned to work, he asked if anyone had come looking for him, trying to play it cool. But no one came looking to anyone’s knowledge. The next two days passed with no sign of them. He was growing increasingly anxious. When over a week had passed, he started to accept reality. He tried not to let it get him down too much, focusing on the fact that spring was drawing closer. His put his decision to quit on hold…just in case.

And then. After two weeks had passed, Dorothy appeared. But this time, no Lillian.

“Hello, George.”

“Well, hello Dorothy! I thought I lost my favorite audience forever.”

“Well, I’m flattered that you think so.”

“And where is my favorite little girl?”

“She’s gone back home to Indiana. She was only visiting. She wanted me to tell you goodbye. And to give you this. For Valentine’s Day.”

Dorothy handed George a red construction paper heart. With the following message:

“Dear George. Thank you for playing such beautiful music. I will miss you. Love, Lillian.”

George felt a tear come to his eye. He already missed his little muse so much.

“She’s right,” Dorothy added. “You do play beautifully.”

“Years of practice.”

He wiped away a tear, hoping she wouldn’t notice.

“I would love to learn.”

“I can teach you.”

“I would love that.”

He hadn’t taught a single lesson since his wife had passed.

He ripped of a corner of sheet music and jotted down his number.

“When you’re ready for a lesson, give me a call.”

“I will.”

“Would you like—” he began.

“Yes?”

“Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

“Of course! Thought you’d never ask.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful. How about tonight?”

“Tonight? Yes. Tonight is perfect.”

George got her address. And plans were made for 4:30 at what turned out to be one another’s favorite diner. How did they not recognize one another?

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Dorothy began. “I’m going to pick out a new outfit.”

She flashed him a flirtatious smile, then turned to walk away.

George, meanwhile, began to play another tune. Only this time, it wasn’t an ol’ chestnut out of his tote bag, but rather something he hadn’t done since his wife passed away: he played a fully improvised piece. Straight from his heart and soul. And boy, did it feel good.

And just like that, he was young again.

A reminder that the end is never as close as one might think.

And everything was possible.

As it always is with music.

 

 

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Forever

Far out into the distance, at the very tip of the curled arm of Cape Cod, stood a lonely white lighthouse, gazing out into a lonely sea – a beacon of hope at the end of the world.

When honeymooners Jimmy and Julia first set off for the lighthouse, they assumed it would take half an hour – maybe 45 minutes – at the most. Yet, they had been walking now for over an hour and the lighthouse seemed as far away as when they first started out.

It was as though both time and space had slowed down for this moment.

As though it were a mirage.

Remarkably, it had been forty-five minutes since they last saw another human being. Walking along the tip of the Cape at sunset not only made them feel like they were walking on the edge of the earth; it made them feel like last two people standing on it. They pretended that – despite centuries of existence – this slice of earth was made just for them only, waiting for this very moment.

Like any couple on their honeymoon, they were filled to the brim with the idealism of new love. The setting certainly helped perpetuate this idyllic myth. The future couldn’t look any brighter; till death did them part. This was the promise they made. And the promise they planned to keep.

Forever.

Both lifelong Michiganders, this was Julia’s first time on the Cape. Jimmy had vacationed there with his family throughout his childhood, visiting his grandfather who lived in Buzzards Bay. He finally convinced a reluctant Julia into making it their honeymoon spot after exploring other, more expensive options. She wanted a cruise. But he insisted. And she gave in. Uncharacteristically. He promised that someday, they would take a cruise.

Jimmy couldn’t wait to make new memories at his favorite place on earth with his beautiful wife. He was worried that without the childhood foundation of memory, she wouldn’t be quite as impressed as he was. But to his pleasant surprise and relief, she fell in love with the Cape immediately, just as he had all those years before. Then again, it wasn’t exactly a difficult feat.

The newlyweds walked hand-in-hand along the dunes, plotting their entire future as the amber sun slowly melted into a velvety orange sea. At the same time, all that mattered was the present. However, it is in that relaxed state of in-the-moment bliss that the gates of the future deem themselves most accessible.

The sand was cold and clammy, but felt so good beneath their feet, on the heels of a long, lazy day of soaking the rays of the sun, swimming in the sea, and disappearing into one another and into their future, desperately trying to hold onto the present. They knew the day was destined to be one of those days that live at the forefront of the photo album of their minds. Memory snapshots that stayed as fresh in memory as they were when they were first experienced, making other experiences pale in comparison.

They dreamed of perhaps one day owning a cozy cottage on the Cape to spend their summers off from teaching. Or, more realistically, a place up north. He could write and she could paint, as the waves lapped gently on the shore. And one day, they would watch their children frolic on the beach as they made their art.

Meanwhile, the sun continued its gradual descent into darkness – at one point, it seemed to be frozen in place, or perhaps just setting slower than usual, as though it knew it had a special audience all to its own.  The moon already beamed high above them, a vibrant contrast to the red-orange glow of the sun, casting a surreal, almost heavenly light. This wasn’t earth. It was as though they were floating in their own galaxy.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” he asked.

“I’m sure if you’re sure,” she responded in usual solidarity.

“This might be the last chance we get.”

“Don’t say that. It’s never too late.”

“I’d like to think that,” he said, with an unexpected dose of sobering reality.

“Well, then I guess we have no choice,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. “We better keep trekking.”

So they did. As the sun continued its deliberate set on the horizon, the lighthouse still loomed equidistant from when they began. Now tired, they walked in silence in a way that only soul mates can.

Far out in the distance, what appeared to be two figures suddenly materialized in front of them, surrounded by what appeared to be heavenly, halo-esque light.

He pointed straight ahead. “Do you see that?”

“What?”

“Don’t you see it?” he said, pointing again. “Looks like two people in the distance.”

She squinted and did, indeed, see two shapeless figures seemingly glowing in the distance.

“Do they look sort of odd to you?” Jimmy asked.

“You mean, like angels? Julia asked. “Yes, I see them. But it’s probably just the sun and the moon playing tricks on us.”

“Probably,” he said, not convinced.

As they continued heading towards the lighthouse, the figures drew closer. The angelic halo surrounding them was now gone, but something else was becoming clear. The two figures weren’t simply strangers. They were individuals that they knew all too well.

“Wait a minute,” he began. “Is that …”

“Us?”

They were looking at exact replicas of themselves.

They both became hushed, as they continued approaching their alternate selves until they stood face-to-face, in stunned silence. They noticed that their alternate selves looked slightly older and worn and it seemed as though they were being pulled together like powerful magnets. Surely, it was a dream. There was no other rational explanation.

“I forgot how young I once looked,” Jimmy’s alternate self said, breaking the awkward silence, but not the confusion.

“Can you explain what’s happening?” Jimmy asked his alternate self, who – aside from looking much older – appeared much less confused. It was as though the alternate Jimmy and Julia were expecting this encounter.

“Tomorrow, in our world – your future world – everything is final. We will be going our separate ways. But it’s not too late. You can avoid everything we did wrong. Every mistake. Every heartbreak. Every hurtful word. Every unresolved argument. Everything.”

“I don’t understand…” Julia said.

“We were once where you are now,” other Julia stated. “In this exact moment. In this exact space. At this same sunset. But now, we are as far from this moment as we could possibly go. Tomorrow, everything becomes final.”

“It’s too late for us,” other Julia said. “But it’s not too late for you. You can avoid this. You can avoid everything.

“Avoid what?” Jimmy asked.

“I’m afraid that’s all we can tell you,” other Julia said. “We don’t have much time.”

“But we can assure you that you’ll know when the time comes,” other Julia said. “And when it does, remember this moment. Please, whatever you do, remember this moment. So you don’t make the same mistake we did.”

“Not for our sake. But for yours,” other Julia said.

Jimmy and Julia nodded in agreement then turned to one another, then back at their alternate selves. But they were now gone. All that remained were their footprints in the cold, clammy sand.

Alone once again, the couple looked at each another in an equal mix of disbelief and awe.

“Is this a dream? she asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“How could it not be?”

“Well, if it is, then whose dream is it?”

Jimmy got no answer in return. For a moment, he grew worried that his Julia was gone, too.

“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?”

‘Of course we are,” Jimmy assured her with a deep hug. “How could we not be? We’re in love. And we have our entire future ahead of us.”

“It’s getting dark,” Julia said.

They looked out into the sea, in the sun’s waning moments, in search of their visible and invisible future. The glow around the sun resembled the glow of their other selves.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said. Jimmy nodded in agreement.

They embraced and kissed, and then made otherwordly love at the foot of the dunes as the sun went down on what they would forever regard as their single most memorable experience. It was not only a moment they would remember, as they promised, but a moment they would return to every day for the rest of their lives.

Afterward, they held each other in search of forever, while looking out into a forever sea, shimmering by the light of a cold, indifferent forever moon before heading back to civilization.

They vowed to make it to the lighthouse on their next trip. But by then, it would be too late.

As these things so often were.

Wrap Party

He had a name that sounded destined for fame.

Rick Valentine.

Or, Mr. Valentine if you were one of his lucky students.     

But fate had other ideas.

This isn’t to suggest nothing went right in Mr. Valentine’s life. In fact, he had a lot to be grateful for. And really, not a whole lot to actually complain about, especially in the comfort of metro Detroit retro bachelor pad right out of a Cary Grant flick.

As stable as his “day job” may have been, he also saw it as the easy way out. And he couldn’t help but feel as though he were a real-life theater version of Mr. Holland’s Opus. For some, this may be a dream come true. But as Mr. Valentine liked to preach in his acting and lit classes, it’s all about context. And in this context, Mr. Valentine saw the feel-good tearjerker as the culmination of a failed dream come true. Sure, Mr. Holland gets to hear his magnum opus performed by his students upon his retirement – but it’s the final nail in the coffin of his dream of being a renowned composer. Despite a lifetime of trying.

To no avail.

 

To be clear, Mr. Valentine loved his job. More specifically, he loved his students. And they loved him. Through thick and thin. More importantly, they respected him. And he respected them in equal measure. Good and bad alike. Especially his theater kids. They weren’t always the best students in a traditional academic sense. But he wouldn’t have traded them in for the world. The robotic 4.0 types?

No, thank you.

The academically-challenged, but free-thinking creative geniuses? Yes, please.

The primary source of stress at his job was rarely in the classroom, or on stage. It was the outside bullshit. The bureaucracy. Things he couldn’t control. Specifically, budget cuts, which slashed his award-winning theater program in half.  The writing was on the wall:  It wouldn’t be long before budget cuts forced him into being a mere ordinary English teacher. He liked teaching lit. But he loved teaching theater.

But through sparse, scattered grants and donations – and a great deal of out of pocket expenses – he somehow kept his program alive (though on life support). This included paying for licensing fees for the play he produced. He had no other choice. He would continue to do so for as long as he could afford…or, until they axed his program completely. In the meantime, he was going to relish every moment while it lasted. But with each passing play, he couldn’t help but feel he was one step closer to the final curtain.

For awhile, he held out hope that the pendulum would eventually swing back in his favor, only to discover that the fulcrum of the pendulum was broken. It swung swing in only one direction now.

 

 

Compounding matters was the onset of 40, which was turning out to be much more anxiety that he anticipated. He always had the idea that age was just a number, anyway. It was all about state of mind. And though he still wholeheartedly believed this, something about reaching a new decade was harder than anticipated.  Perhaps had he reached the pinnacle of his dreams by now, it would have been an easier pill to swallow. But it was a sobering reminder that the curtain to his dreams was almost full closed  – even if half of his life still lay ahead of him.

He knew he still had a lot to thankful for, including a steady relationship that – until recently – had been smooth sailing despite the routine complacency that had settled in. But rough waters seemed to be picking up lately. And though the final play of the year was finally over, it had followed a steady, stressful stream of non-stop productions throughout the year. But now that the demands of it were mercifully over, he could hopefully recalibrate his life, so that all the other scattered pieces would finally fall back into place. At the very least, he could take pride in yet another successful, sold-out production. And it wasn’t just about recouping some of his money back.  It was about giving these kids the audience they deserved. Though, he also reminded them that whether there is one face in the crowd, or 500, you perform as though you were on the biggest Broadway stage. Every. Single. Time.

They fully bought into it, too.

No doubt, his students kept him grounded. They were the one thing that thing that kept him most stable and centered (how many teachers could say that?). And it was because of these students that he got to remain in the world of theater, where he felt most at home.

But he couldn’t escape the feeling at times that it was only fool’s gold. Although he garnered the perfect teaching position, it essentially forced him to put his dream in the backseat. In the early part of his career, he at least quenched his thirst for the spotlight in the community theater circuit – and even some film and commercial work here and there, creating the illusion that his dream was still alive.

But with summer looming and his mid-life crisis worsening, Mr. Valentine was thinking about getting involved in theater again.  Maybe it would be just the thing he needed to snap out of this nearly year-long funk. But if he did that, he knew Julia wouldn’t be thrilled. He was already pushing their relationship to the limit with the demands of his “day job”. He didn’t blame her. The demands of theater are taxing on any relationship.

Which is why he was beginning to wonder if he’d be better off alone.

It had been two years since he last performed on stage – the longest such stretch of his adult life. His lack of time to devote to his dream was compounded by the diminishing returns he noticed between auditions and roles, proportionate to his exponentially increasing waistline.

It is no coincidence that he had been in a slow spiral ever since. He just needed to figure out a way to pull out of it. To regain his spark.

But how?

Once upon a time, he never would have thought it possible to lose it to begin with.

But he would have to figure it out later. Right now, it was time to focus on the wrap party he was throwing for his cast and crew to celebrate the final production of the year. He really could have used Julia’s help, but she was pulling another late-shift at the hospital. She wasn’t on board with the party, anyway.

When he brought up the idea of hosting a party at his apartment, she replied:

“Are you fucking nuts?”

“It’s totally fine,” he assured her. “They’re good kids!”

“In this this day and age, it’s just not a good idea,” she forewarned.

Naïve as he may be, he truly believed he had nothing to worry about.

He loved his students. And most of all, he trusted them. And so did their parents. They were like a family.

He wholeheartedly believed that. And never had reason to think otherwise.

 

Across town, Mr. Valentine’s star Lucy and her woefully mismatched jock-boyfriend C.J. were in the midst of their own one-act drama.

“So, when were you going to tell me?” C.J. asked, with simmering rage.

“Soon,” Lucy said, still in full theater make-up. All she wanted to do was wash her face and get ready for the wrap party, hosted by her favorite teacher and mentor. She couldn’t believe she was actually about to go to his house – she was always curious what his house looked like.

But getting ready entailed tearing down her stage-self and transforming into her true-self (though, the lines between the two were so often blurred).

Arguing with C.J. was the last thing she wanted to be dealing with. In fact, it was time to end it once for all. He was sucking every ounce of positivity out of her. Ask anyone who knew her and they would tell that she was typically a reservoir of positivity and energy. But lately, he was just dragging her down. And that was no easy feat. Yet somehow, he routinely found a way to do so. She knew what she had to do, but was too afraid to do anything about it.

There were two big roadblocks: she was worried about how he would handle it. Not that he would do anything to harm her, but she just got the sense he wouldn’t handle a break-up very well. He had a tendency to get…overly emotional. Most importantly, she didn’t want to hurt him.

The fact that he was her first real boyfriend and each other’s “first” in many other ways certainly wasn’t making things any easier.

When were you going to tell me?” he repeated, his tone more threatening.

“Tonight. After the party.”

“You’re just saying that because your mom slipped and told me.”

“That’s not true, C.J.”

“How can you be so fucking selfish?”

“I’m selfish?”

“You’re the one who’s gonna move and leave me.”

“You’re the one who’s not being supportive. This is my dream. It always has been and you know that. I couldn’t just give up a scholarship like that— ”

“It’s that fucking teacher…”

“What? Mr. Valentine?”

“You never mentioned New York ‘til you started falling for him.”

“Are you even serious right now? You’re jealous because somebody finally made me realize I can something I never thought possible? Because he’s the only person who believes in me? Because somebody actually encourages me to follow my heart?”

“What about my heart?”

For the first time, she saw how truly selfish he was. It was always right in front of her, but now she could see clearly.

“Maybe if you were half as supportive as Mr. Valentine—”

“You know what? Fuck this. Fuck your stupid little dream and while you’re at it – go fuck your teacher – if you haven’t already.”

He stood up.

“Go have fun at your shit ass party.”

C.J. stormed out of the house, leaving Lucy in tear-streaked stage make-up. She watched through the door as he drove away and fought with all her might to run after him. But she knew it was for the best.

He peeled away with Blink 182’s “Dammit” cranked up, never once looking up to see her in the window.

She hated that fucking band with a passion. And bands of their ilk. God forbid he ever let her pick the music when they went out.

“I just don’t like that musical shit you play,” he once said.

And that was that. Just his shitty music.

But not her problem anymore! Yet here she was, still crying. Waiting for the relief to settle in. She knew she was stronger than this. And she certainly knew this was for the best. Not to mention, way past due.

After washing off her stage, she got dressed for the party– a sundress she bought with the gift card from C.J. to Kohl’s (the only gift he knew how to get her). She then put her “real-life” make-up, but nothing could conceal the fact that she had been crying. She suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of facing every one. Which would mean having to pretend that nothing was wrong  And the last thing she felt like doing tonight was…act.

C.J. was right about one thing: Mr. Valentine did help her decide to go New York in pursuit of her dream. A dream he told her that he regretted never following himself.

As far as her falling in love with him?

Maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong about that.

She started heading out the door, then made a detour into the basement, where she grabbed a half-empty pint of vodka, covered in a layer of dust.

First time for everything.

She stashed it into her purse, then headed out to her parents’ Jeep Cherokee.

 

Back at the retro bachelor pad, Mr. Valentine put the finishing touches on the snack table, before inserting a tray of his home-made buns into the oven. He then neatly arranged his plastic champagne glasses on a serving tray, which awaited the sparkling grape juice he planned to toast his cast with.

He put on a Dean Martin album on to his Westinghouse vintage stereo console, poured himself a few sips of bourbon from his mini-bar into a retro tumbler – his one chance to drink tonight. And relax. He sat back on his vintage couch.

The calm before the storm.

 

As Lucy listened to the soundtrack to her favorite musical: The Last Five Years, tears cascaded down her face. As she waited as a light, she looked over at her purse, noticing the vodka bottle poking out. She pushed it further into her purse. Though tempted, she knew it would be best to wait until she reached her destination before she indulged.

She reminded herself that she didn’t have to do this.

But she was committed. And once Lucy committed her mind to something, there was no turning back.

It was the trait she identified with more than anything else.

 

Mr. Valentine finished his bourbon, then looked toward his collection of booze, realizing it wasn’t such a good idea to have them sitting there so clearly in the open. He covered the bottles with a towel, grabbed a pretzel rod en route to the kitchen, then set his glass down on the sink, somehow shattering it to smithereens.

As he cleaned up the shards of glass, the doorbell buzzed.

The first guest had arrived.

Begin the beguine!     

He never should have answered the door.

 

Lucy arrived at Mr. Valentine’s apartment complex, parking alongside a curb a half block away. She wiped away an endless parade of tears. Her phone rang, but she ignored it. She knew it was probably Thomas. Add it to the list of ways she stabbed her bestie in the heart. Maybe now with C.J. seemingly out of her life, she can make things right with the people who mattered most – especially Thomas. He deserved better.

She deserved better.

But right now, she simply couldn’t see past the tears.

 

One by one, Mr. Valentine’s prized pupils arrived (or, in some cases, two by two) and before he knew it, small living room was packed with a dozen or so talented teenage thespians.

But one notable cast member was missing.

His shining star.

Lucy.

She was always on time. He supposed it was okay for her to show up to a party 20 minutes late. She earned it.

Meanwhile, as his students sat around awkwardly, Mr. Valentine pondered the fact nobody commented on his vintage décor. Perhaps they just assumed that he was so old, the hipster element was lost on them? He certainly couldn’t blame them.

“Where’s Lucy?” Mr. Valentine finally asked.

“I’ll text her,” Thomas said.

Thomas was Lucy’s best friend. The consummate gay best friend behind every rising theater diva. Mr. Valentine couldn’t help but notice that poor gay Thomas was left behind in the dust once she started dating that douchebag C.J. – one Mr. Valentine’s least all-time Hall Shame students. The only reason he was enrolled in Mr. Valentine’s acting class to begin with was so he could be with Lucy – or, more specifically, so he could keep a jealous eye on her. He was clearly jealous of gay Thomas. That’s how insecure he was.

Though he could sort of understand why nobody asked Mr. Valentine about his vintage décor, he couldn’t understand how nobody touched the large spread of snacks he put out. Since when do teenagers ignore snacks? He couldn’t really blame them. Coming to your teacher’s house is awkward no matter how well-liked he was. It was akin to  running into students out in public, who often acted shocked that their teacher had lives outside of school.

Mr. Valentine decided the time had come to take matters into his own hands. They were used to Mr. Valentine taking the reigns.

“C’mon everyone! Refreshments!”

At his urging, everyone headed toward the refreshment table.

There was no denying it: they took direction well.

 

Through the gauze of her tears, Lucy looked toward her purse and after a long hesitation, reached for the bottle, opened it, took a sniff, flinched. She took a deep breath, then took a larger swig than she could handle. She immediately spit it out. She tried it again, but a smaller dose, swallowing it like the cough medicine she hated as a child.

Still hated.

Her phone rang, but she ignored it and took three more sips.

And then the tears stopped.

 

Mr. Valentine impatiently looked out the window.

“She’s not picking up,” Thomas said.

“Did she mention she was stopping anywhere on the way here?”

“She said she was going home to change, but she should have been here by no.”

“Typical starlet,” Mr. Valentine responded. “Can you call her again?”

Thomas dials…

“Voicemail.”

Mr. Valentine probably shouldn’t have been as worried as he was. But it wasn’t so much that was worried about her safety, as he was that she would somehow bail on the party. He would never say it aloud, but she was the primary reason he was having the party to begin with. He realized it was a tad bit creepy, but knew he meant no ill will. He simply couldn’t help but view her as his (secret) guest of honor. She was the star of the show, after all.

Though he would never admit it aloud, there was no question he felt an innocent affection toward her. It wasn’t so much about the teacher-student dynamic, as it was the spiritual match of two artists. He was in awe of her talent, pure and simple. And her intelligence and wit. Some might call it a crush. And in his thoughts, one might say he is certainly guilty.

But like the vast majority of teachers, he would never do anything to act on this in any sort of unprofessional or physical way. He knew better. And the last thing he wanted to do was put his career and reputation in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the cast and crew continued munching on appetizers, Mr. Valentine began to realize that despite the slow start, he woefully underestimated the average teenage appetite. If necessary, there was always pizza.

And though his star hadn’t arrived yet, since he didn’t have any other beverages other than sparkling grape juice, he decided the time had come to give a toast.

He popped the cork and filled the plastic flutes, then handed everyone a drink, before proposing a toast.

“I want to thank each and every one of you for everything you did to make this play the success that it was. Honestly, this was the best production I’ve ever been part of. In all my years of teaching, you were all hands down the best group of students I’ve ever been dealt.

“Even though Lucy was the star – and – I don’t mean to undervalue her contributions in any way – you all deserve equal credit for making this show what it was. To this room full of amazing talent, you are all stars in my eyes. I salute you.”

Mr. Valentine raised his glass, then downed his juice.

“Now if you will all have a seat, I have a special surprise in store for you.”

Everyone took a seat and awaited with eager anticipation as Mr. Valentine headed over to his stereo. If there was one thing they could count on with Mr. Valentine, it was special surprises.

He located the soundtrack album to the French New Wave classic Un Homme et une Femme and carefully placed it on the turntable.

As the needle hissed, Mr. Valentine jubilantly exclaimed:

“Let’s get this party started!”

Static turned into music.

And Mr. Valentine began to cut a rug. And how!

It took awhile before his students overcame their initial state of befuddlement, but eventually they whooped and hollered at the one-man show taking place before their very eyes. They were used to such crazy antics from their beloved teacher. But this one may have taken the cake!

Not that anyone should have been that shocked. He danced like the dickens every chance he got. And when he was wasn’t dancing, he was singing some old chestnut, which is students never heard before – just one of the many quirks and eccentricities his students loved so much. And yet another reason for students to be confused as to what his actual age was.

“Shake it! Don’t break it!”, Stephanie yelled out – the wild child of the group.

Mr. Valentine had legitimate concerns about she would be it weren’t for theater. Now that the season was over, all he could do was hope that she would stay out of trouble – particularly as far as drugs were concerned. He had already busted her for pot once. But rather than reporting it, he gave her a motivational pep talk instead. Though he knew the “right’ thing to do would have been to turn her in, he also knew that she would never trust him again and would likely lead her to getting into even more trouble down the road. He did what he honestly thought was in her best interest and safety. He wasn’t afraid to break the rules in order to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, Mr. Valentine wiggled his backside back and forth in what could only best be described as the twist…with a twist.

Vintage Mr. Valentine.

Doing what he did best – or, at least strived for the most: bringing smiles to the faces of his students. And reminding students how to live life in the moment. In the real world. And on stage.

He often reminded them that there was more to life than homework and rehearsal. Those things were important. But without fits of spontaneous fun, what was the point?

 

 

Outside the apartment, Lucy took one final swing of vodka, then struggled out of the car and up the sidewalk to the apartment building.  Usually the epitome of grace, she was now stupid drunk.

Lucy clumsily removed a piece of paper from her pocket with Mr. Valentine’s apartment number written on it. She dropped it and the wind blew it away. She tried to chase it down, but it was no use.

She approached the intercom, located Mr. Valentine’s name on the buzzer, then rang it.

“Hello?” said Mr. Valentine.

“Mr. Valentine?”

“Lucy?”

“It’s me!”

“Come on up. Apartment 304.”

He buzzed her in. She somehow managed to make it up the steps, toppling over a couple of times and coming dangerously close to falling all the way down, before catching herself, through no control of her own.  When she finally reached the third floor, she found Mr. Valentine eagerly waiting for her at the door.

Best teacher ever.

“Hey, if it isn’t the star of the show! Let’s give it up for Lucy!”

Everyone cheers as she entered. Thomas mockingly booed.

As Mr. Valentine watched Lucy stumble her way across the apartment, one thing was immediately clear: she was sauced.

As she clumsily gave everyone a hug, Mr. Valentine desperately tried to figure out what to do about the matter at hand. Catching a kid smoking weed backstage at school was one thing. But inviting a drunk student in his home was a whole other ball of wax.

It was his turn for her sloppy drunk hug. He hesitantly allowed her to embrace him, but then she awkwardly held on to him for so long, literally leaving him no choice but to pry her off him, somehow managing not to fall onto the couch with him still in her clutches.

He realized he could no longer ignore the drunk diva in the room.

“Lucy…”

“Yes, Mr. Valentine?”

“Do I smell alcohol?”

“I don’t feel so good,” she said, before collapsing into the couch and immediately slumping over.

“Looks like the drama queen is at it again,” Thomas said

Mr. Valentine sat next to her and sternly stated:

“Lucy, I think you’ve been drinking and you need to go home.”

“I’m not drunk,” she drunkenly insisted.

“I’m your teacher. Trust me. You’re drunk. What’s your parents’ phone number?”

“You want me to leave your party, Mr. Valentine?” she said with a hint of flirtation.

“Of course not. But you leave me with no other choice.”

“You’re going to get me in trouble.”

“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Mr. Valentine said sternly, fully aware now that he had a major problem on his hands. “Now what’s your number?”

“Why do you want my number, Mr. Valentine?”

Goddamit, Lucy!. he wanted to shout. But he kept his cool.

“So, I can call your parents.”

Was she trying to sound flirtatious, or was he just imagining things?

Projecting?

Lucy pretended to zip up her lips and throw away an invisible key.

“Fine, I’ll call the police. Your choice.”

Lucy surrenders the number to him.

He dialed. Voicemail.

“Is there another number I can call?” he asked.

Lucy shook her head, but he got the sense she was lying. How could they possibly not have another number? He went ahead and left a message, with the French soundtrack still playing on the hi-fi.

“Hi, this is Mr. Valentine – Lucy’s drama teacher. Your daughter showed up at my wrap party a few minutes ago, slightly inebriated. She needs to be picked up, so please contact me as soon as you get this, or just come on by to 7421 Sedgemoor.”       He hung up.

“Do you have any idea where they might be?”

“They went to a party.”

“When will they be back?”

“I don’t know. Late.”

“How late?”

“Tomorrow morning,” she said with a sheepish grin.

Meanwhile, the rest of the students were snickering, enjoying the after school special unfolding before their eyes.

Lucy slumped down in her seat. The concern of having a drunk high school student in his apartment was almost equal to the possibility that a drunk student was going to vomit on his vintage sofa.

Mr. Valentine tried to help her up, but she resisted, nearly pulling him on top of her. The rest of his guests began snapping pics and taking video. Soon, it would be all over social media.

“Guys, do me a favor and promise you won’t post any of this.”

Nobody seemed to be taking his request seriously.

“I’m serious. Do you guys want me to get fired?”

“But you didn’t even do anything wrong,” Thomas said.

“Did you?” Stephanie asked with as sheepish grin.

“Listen to your teacher!” he barked.

His students finally relented.

“Come on, sit up.”

“Noooo,” Lucy insisted in a drunken haze. “I just want to lie down here.”

“There’s not enough room. Come with me.”

He offered his hand, immediately regretting his decision before he could even follow through. Not because he was worried about what might happen, but rather because of what his students might say and post and gossip about before he even had a chance to get out his side of the story.

But he simply loved his vintage sofa too much to risk tainting it with millennial vomit.

Lucy clumsily took his hand and Mr. Valentine lead her into his bedroom, well aware of the snickers coming from the living room as she struggled to stay on her feet.

This is how rumors start.

No matter how innocent his actions were, he was more worried about what others might say he did. The court of public opinion was the most powerful court in the land. Especially in this day and age, which is why he always made sure to leave his classroom or auditorium door open when meeting alone with a student – male or female. Now, he found himself in the unfortunate and unexpected situation of having to leave his bedroom door open, as he awkwardly helped Lucy into the bed, then placed a blanket over her.

“Let me get you some water,” he said, before stepping out of the room.

“Is she ok?” Thomas asked.

“She will be,” Mr. Valentine said.

“Yeah, when he’s done with her,” Stephanie said under her breath, but still well within earshot.

Mr. Valentine was always amazed by how much students underestimated a teacher’s hearing.

He entered his kitchen, grabbed a Tupperware bowl and a cold glass of water and rag, then headed back into his bedroom, where Lucy was rolling around in the bed. Though Mr. Valentine assumed it was nausea, her body language suggested otherwise.

“Lay still,” he ordered.

“The room’s spinning,” she said.

“It’s not the room,” he began, setting the bucket down. “It’s your head.”

“Now it’s spinning faster!”

“There’s a bowl here next to the bed in case you get sick…”

“Thanks, Mr. Valentine. You’re sweet.”

Jesus Christ.

He then handed her the water.

“I don’t want to drink.”

“You should have though about that earlier.”

She took a sip. He then gently placed the rag over her forehead.

“Why’d you do it?” Mr. Valentine asked.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Honestly. What was the point?”

She hesitated even more, before she finally blurted it out:

“C.J. dumped me.”

“When? Tonight?”

Lucy nodded. Mr. Valentine searched for the right words, but none came. He knew well enough that there were no words in the world that could make a brokenhearted teenage girl feel better. He wasn’t a miracle worker. Hell, there wasn’t a miracle worker on the planet who could mend a teenage broken heart.

So, he did the only thing he could do in a situation like this: he listened.

“I don’t understand,” she said, through tears.” He should be happy for me.”

“The fact that he doesn’t listen says all you need to know about him. Don’t you think?”

He wasn’t quite sure, but there was a hint of agreement in her face. And then she suddenly sat up, sniffing the air.

“Is something burning?”

Mr. Valentine knew exactly what she meant.

“Oh, God. My buns are burning!”

Mr. Valentine bolted out of the room and compounded by his burning buns was the horror of seeing his students helping themselves to his liquor!

“No, no, no, no. Please don’t do this,” Mr. Valentine exclaimed in horror.

Stephanie offered him a shot.

“Put it down.”

“Oh, c’mon! It’s not like you don’t drink.”

“That’s pretty obvious,” Mr.  Valentine said, pointing at his expansive collection of booze. “But I didn’t say I don’t drink. I just don’t drink with my students. You guys know better.”

            As Mr. Valentine gathered the bottles and shots from his students’ clutches, he was in way more hot water than he initially supposed. He then knocked over a bottle of Beefeater, spilling its contents all over the floor.

“Is something burning?” Thomas asked.
“My buns,” Mr. Valentine said matter-of-factly, before racing into the kitchen to open the oven and tend to his burning buns, throwing on a snowman oven mitt.

Just as he pulled his burning buns out of the oven, the unmistakable melody of vomit emanated from the bathroom. Followed by a tardy smoke alarm.

Torn between dealing with a fire alarm, or a puking student, he headed straight to the bathroom, ignoring the taunts by his students. And still wearing his oven mitt.

“Are you okay—?”

Lucy vomited again, somehow missing inside the toilet and instead, landing a direct shot to the exterior of the bowl.

For a brief moment, Mr. Valentine wondered if he might puke, too.

“Why are you wearing an oven mitt?”

Meanwhile, the fire alarm continued to beep.

“I’ll be right back,” Mr. Valentine said. “Make sure you don’t sit in your vomit. Or, choke on it, for that matter.”

Mr. Valentine rushed into kitchen and used his oven mitt to disperse the smoke, to no avail. He removed the battery, then headed back to the bathroom.

“Any better?” Mr. Valentine asked, as Lucy sat next to the toilet, on the edge of her puke puddle.

“Yes.”

Mr. Valentine helped her up, then lead Lucy back into the bedroom.

“Drink,” he said offering her water.

She took a long sip, before handing the glass back to him.

“Now lie down,” he ordered.

She did as instructed. As he proceeded to tuck her in, he felt an unexpected level of affection. He couldn’t quite pinpoint it initially, then realized it was a fatherly instinct kicking in. For the first time, he truly saw her as a child. He was used to treating his students – especially his theater kids – more like adults they were close to becoming than the childhood they were about to leave behind.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Better.”

“Bet you’ll think twice next time.”

Lucy nodded.

“I think you’re right, Mr.  Valentine.”

“And you’re really going to regret this in the morning.”

“Well, I deserve it.”

“That’s not true. But you definitely made a poor choice.”

She looked away. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Yet still, so damn innocent.

“But we all do.”

She looked him in the eye, smiling.

“You’re amazing, Mr. Valentine.”

Here we go.

            “Not really.”

“No, really, you are. I mean it. Everyone knows it.”

“I’m just doing my job.”

And suddenly from the living room: the unmistakable sound of sex.

Moans, slaps, and all.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

            “What’s that?” Lucy asked.

“Good question!”

            How much worse could it possibly get?  And who in the hell was fucking in the other room?

He was afraid to find out…but he had no other choice but to investigate.

He slowly crept out of the room, preparing for the worst, as the moans increased intensified in volume and frequency. Where was everyone else? Did they leave? Or, were they quietly watching whoever was fucking?

And please God, not on my vintage sofa!

“Make my ass bright red like an apple!” an unrecognizable female voice said. But then he realized exactly what was happening. Much to his relief, he students weren’t fucking. They were simply watching porn from his personal collection. Which meant they had also dug through his shit. Unlike his liquor, he didn’t just keep his porn collection in plain sight. He didn’t want his  girlfriend to find them. But nevfer for a second did he ever think he would have to hide them from his students!

Why on God’s green earth were his students suddenly turning against him?

And on his turf?

This just had to be a nightmare, right?

“Mr. Valentine! I never knew how awesome you were!” Stephanie proclaimed.

And before he could respond or even shut the porno off, his girlfriend entered.

“I don’t even want to know,” Julia said, exasperated as Mr. Valentine ejected the DVD.

“Can I talk to you privately?” Julia demanded, heading off into the kitchen.

“Do not touch a single thing without my permission,” Mr. Valentine demanded, before he followed Julia into the kitchen, DVD still in hand.

“Somebody’s in the doghouse!” Thomas blurted out.

He entered the kitchen, where Julia was waiting for him.

“Julia, I can explain—”

“What in the hell is going on?”

“Calm down,” he begged.

“Calm down? Are you fucking kidding me? How can you be so irresponsible?”

“Mr. Valentine!” Lucy yelled out from the bedroom.

“Yes?”

“The room is spinning again!”

“What’s that all about?” Julia asked, exasperated.

Mr. Valentine headed toward the bedroom, tossing the porno into his cluttered closet as he entered. Julia follows closely behind, as Lucy hung upside-down off the foot of the bed. Mr. Valentine helps her up.

“You know what,” Julia began. “I think I’ve seen enough.”

Julia turned to leave. Mr. Valentine followed her to the door, which she slammed in his face.

“Julia. Julia, wait – lemme just—“

“I have to get to work. Which is a good thing, since I’m not ready to deal with this right now.”

He turned to face his students, who were trying not to laugh. He then headed straight to his bedroom – his refuge. Waiting for him was the one student he knew wouldn’t laugh at him, despite being the biggest source of stress. And his current, single danger.

She was asleep. Her eyes closed; her face pale. In fact, she appeared so lifeless, he checked to make sure she was still breathing. He wondered if he should take her to the hospital. After all, who know how much she drank? Chances are, she probably never drank much before this night.

As he watched her peacefully sleeping body, he couldn’t decide if she looked more like a child, or more like the adult she was on the cusp of becoming. He concluded that she walked the dangerous line between the two. There was no doubt: she wss beautiful.

Angelic.

Pondering the possibilities.

Possibilities he never thought existed in even the deepest, darkest recesses of his mind.

A rea-life Humbert Humbert.

            But then he came to his senses and snapped himself out of his mental lapse into moral depravity and got back to the task at hand: figuring out how the fuck to get out of this hot mess. The last thing he wanted to do was turn the situation into something sticker  than it was already was. At least right now, he technically hadn’t done a single thing wrong, save for some stray, illicit musings.

But wasn’t it already too late?

Wasn’t he already in a heap of trouble?

Of course, it could always get much worse. He at least had some control over how much worse the situation would get.

He knew it would be for the best to not to be alone with Lucy in the bedroom,

but he couldn’t bear to face the rest of his students. He felt as though they were reading every one of his thoughts. And haven’t they already caused enough trouble?

It didn’t help that he caught the following snippets of conversation, which was all the more reason not to stay alone with Lucy:

“I don’t know what’s worse: a student wanting her teacher, or a teacher wanting his student.”

“It’s obvious they want each other.”

“I think it’s more him than her. I don’t think she—”

“Are you kidding me? She practically worships the ground he walks on.”

“I think it’s the other way around.”

“I think it’s an equal opportunity partnership.”

It was time to put his foot down. But just as he was about to get up, Lucy woke up and smiled at Mr. Valentine.

Her knight in shining armor.

“You’re the only one who believes in me, Mr. Valentine.” And then for added emphasis: “Who’s ever believed in me.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It is. I think I’m in love with you, Mr. Valentine.”

And there it was.

“But Lucy…I’m your teacher.”

“Don’t you love me, Mr. Valentine?”

“Lucy…”

“Yeah?”

“I can’t. You know that.”

“Why not, Mr. Valentine?”

“Why? A, you’re my student. B. you’re too young. But other than that, you’re a terrific girl. You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re funny, you’re talented, and believe me, if you were 10 years older—maybe even five …”

“Let’s play an acting game. I’ll pretend to be older—”

“Lucy, I’m flattered, but I think it’s best if you stopped talking.”

“Wasn’t it you that once said non-verbal communication can be more powerful than verbal?”

“What in the hell’s going on here?” a deep voice demanded from the hallway.

And lo and behold, there appeared C.J.

How in the hell did he manage to sneak into his apartment?

“C.J.?!” both Lucy and Mr. Valentine said in shocked unison.

“I knew it. You lying bitch.”

“C.J., I think it’s best if—”

“Mr. Valentine – ‘Mr. Teacher of the Year’ – is going to try to tell me what’s for the best while sitting in bed with my girlfriend. I love Lucy.”

Lucy began to cry.

“Get out of my bedroom,” Mr. Valentine demanded.

“I don’t think I should,” C.J. mouthed back.

“Oh, I think you very much should. Unless you want me to call the cops.”

“This coming from a man in bed with a teenager.”

“Let me ask you something. What is the one thing I say should always be considered in any story?”
“Umm …” C.J. struggled to figure it out. But this came as no surprise. C.J. was never the brightest bulb in the batch. What Lucy saw in him is something Mr. Valentine never understood. Not that he had any business one way or another. But Lucy wasn’t just any other student. She was…special.  And he was aware of this fact now more than ever.  C.J. continued to ponder the answer.

Lucy sat up.

“Context, C.J. Context! God, why are you so fucking stupid?”

Mr. Valentine picked up his vintage 1960’s phone and began to dial.

“Please, no,” C.J. begged.

He looked at Mr. Valentine, then back at Lucy.

“Goodbye, C.J.” Lucy said.

Tears welled in C.J.’s eyes, before he stormed out, throwing a vase, and smashing it to smithereens. A family heirloom.

The students watched in shock as C.J. headed out the door.

Lucy lay back down and Mr. Valentine innocently rubbed her back, before he realized – innocent or not – that it was not such a good idea.

“You’re going to be fine. Everything’s going to be fine.”

A knock at the door.

Mr. Valentine charged out of the room and yelled at the door.

“Go away, C.J.!” shouted Mr. Valentine.

“This is the police!”

Mr. Valentine slowly opened the door.

“Sorry about that. How can I help you, Officer?”

“We got reports of unruly behavior involving food thrown off of your balcony and loud shouts.”

Mr. Valentine turned to his students.

“Who was throwing food?”

Everybody pretended to be clueless. Most of them  were actors after all. And Mr. Valentine taught them well.

“Who are all of these kids?” the officer asked.

“Oh, these are my students.”

“Looks like quite a party.”

“Oh, nothing too fancy.”

“What’s the occasion?”
“It’s a wrap party.”

“As in rap music?”

“No, wrap, as in party following a play.”

“Oh,” the cop asked, seemingly still confused.

The cop scans the students and recognizes one of the students.

“I remember you.”

“Hey, what’s up?”

The cop spotted the open bottle of sparkling grape juice.

“Is that an open alcohol container I see?”

“No, that’s juice. Just juice.”

“Can I see it?”

“Of course.”

Mr. Valentine walked over to the bottle and brings it to the cop.

The cop looked at the label, sniffed the contents.

“Do their parents know they’re here?”

“Of course,” Mr. Valentine said.

“Just keep a better eye on them, okay?”

“Oh, trust me. I will.”

And then…more vomiting.

“Who’s that?”

“Oh, that’s my girlfriend. She’s not feeling too well.”

“Sounds like it.”

“Have a good night,” the officer said, satisfied that all was well.

“You too, Officer.”

“Keep it real, kids. And say no to drugs.”

“We will.”

Mr. Valentine shut the door.

“That’s it. Party’s over.”

“C’mon, Mr, Valentine!”

It was time to put the hammer down:

“I would like to thank all of you for all the respect you showed me tonight.”

“We’re sorry—”

“Just go.”

“What about Lucy?” Thomas asked, seemingly suspiciously of Mr. Valentine’s intentions.

The students filed out, one by one.

Until there was only Lucy.

Mr. Valentine slowly shut the door, then leaned against it.

Please be a dream. Please be a dream.

            He realized that if it were a dream, there would be no repercussions.          

            And he could get away with anything he wanted.

But he knew for damn sure this wasn’t a dream.

It wasn’t even a nightmare.

It was real life.

And real life had consequences.

He sighed deeply, before heading toward the bathroom to check on Lucy. But she had already retreated back to bed. In fact, she was already asleep, curled into a ball, her backside facing away from him. And then he noticed the vomit on the floor.  She never made it the bathroom. Nor, did she use the puke bucket for that matter.

He’d deal with the clean-up later.

For the time being, he hovered over her, watching her body exhale deep, slow breaths.

Before his mind wandered too far down a path it never should have gone in the first place, he entered the kitchen and re-dialed Lucy’s parents.

Please answer the goddamn phone.

No dice.

He wanted nothing more than for this night to be over. But until Lucy was gone, he had no choice to wait it out. Even if it meant sleeping on the couch,

For the time being – he  grabbed a bucket, filled it with dish soap, and headed back into the bedroom to clean the puke up off the floor.

When he was done, the dumped out the bucket in the toilet, flushed it, set the bucket into the bathtub, and washed his hands before retreating back to the bedroom, where he slowly sat down on the edge of his bed. Lucy stirred slightly, but her light snores suggested she out like a light.

How cute those snores are…

At least she was asleep. He really didn’t want to deal with her being awake, based on how every other conversation went with her throughout the night.

He continued staring at her lifeless, but snoring body.

How easy it would be…

Again, prior to this night, he never in a million years envisioned a moment like this. Then again, the opportunity never presented itself.

And now that it had….

He kept reminding himself that he still technically had done nothing wrong – within reason. He had full control of his destiny and could still get out of this unscathed – or, least, relatively so.

Besides, the last thing he wanted to do was violate someone he cared about so deeply. Nor, did he want to risk the career he loved so much. Not to mention, risk ruining his beloved reputation. For what? A quick thrill? And while she was passed out? He certainly would want anything to happen under circumstances like this no matter what the context. Let alone a minor. His student. And then there was the issue of Julia. Sure, there was trouble in paradise, but she deserved better than this.

Yet, even with all of this in mind, as he sat hunched over her sleeping, angelic body, he couldn’t help but feel that he reached a point of no return, no matter how hard he tried to convinced himself otherwise. Something had begun to take over his body and mind. A dark side of himself he never knew existed. And it excited him.

He suddenly felt like a puppet, controlled by a power he didn’t fully understand. The next thing he knew, he was slowly reaching his hand toward the small of her back. He felt as though he were watching himself in a movie. Not real life. And like a movie, you can’t control the outcome, no matter how hard you might try, or want to.

But then, unexpected plot twist.to what was already an unexpected plot twist.

“I think it’s time to take you home,” Mr. Valentine said, pulling himself up over the cliff that he was so hopelessly dangling from.

A lesser man might have done the unthinkable.

But in the end, not Mr. Valentine.

Though, he could never forgive himself for his thoughts. It scared to him to think how many others might felt the same…but done worse.

Lucy slowly awoke, confused, then nodded. as. Mr. Valentine helped her out of her bed. Getting her in bed was easy, compared to the sack of potatoes he was dealing with now.

“C’mon, Lucy,” he pleaded. Annoyed.

He dragged her out of bed, nearly dropping her onto the floor.

She lost her footing and fell to the floor, hitting her head.

“Oh, God. Are you okay?”

She began to laugh hysterically.

“That was fun,” she said, despondently.

Mr. Valentine helped her back up and walked her across his apartment and then down the stairs, where she stumbled halfway down the steps, before Mr. Valentine spared her from further injury, nearly throwing out his back in the process.

“I’m flying,” Lucy said, oblivious to it all

Mr. Valentine continued to wrangle her limp body as though auditioning for a Weekend at Bernie’s re-make.

Mr. Valentine helped Lucy into the passenger seat of his rusted-out Dodge Neon.

“I need your address.”

“What would you do if you I didn’t give it to you.”

“Give me your address,” Mr. Valentine said sternly. Quite frankly, he had enough of her shit.

The anxiety of driving around with a drunk student certainly wasn’t helping his anxiety.

“Give me your goddamn address!”

“13 Salem Ave. You’re so mean.”

“You have no idea,” Mr. Valentine said, before he peeled away into the night. A heavy fog covered the landscape, impairing Mr. Valentine’s visibility.

Meanwhile, Lucy kept falling in and out of a drunken sleep.

She tried repeatedly to rest her head on Mr. Valentine’s shoulder. He nudged her away, but it was no use. Three attempts later, he simply gave in. He needed to focus on the road.

Lucy suddenly and semi-unexpectedly put her hand on his thigh, causing Mr. Valentine to nearly swerve off the road.

“Dammit, Lucy! You have to stop this!”

But she was relentless. Every time he removed her hand, she put it right back. He finally got her to stop when he forcefully moved her arm out of the way.

“You’re going to be the end of me,” Mr. Valentine said with desperation.

“Or maybe the beginning?” she said with a seductive grin.

Mr. Valentine continued staring straight ahead at the road. Who was this demon Lucy had summoned? He had never seen this side of her. In any shape or fashion. And despite the fact that she seemed to be sobering up, her behavior seemed to be getting worse!

Suddenly, Lucy began to laugh hysterically. She was going completely mad!

At first, Mr. Valentine was annoyed, but then he found himself suddenly laughing at the absolute absurdity of the situation.

And then without warning, lickety split, she passed out asleep again.

Mr. Valentine breathed a sigh of relief.

A few minutes later, they finally arrived at Lucy’s house.

“Let me help you in,” said Mr. Valentine.

“What if my parents are home…” she asked.

“I hope they are!”

“Aren’t you worried about getting in trouble?”

“I have nothing to hide. And it’s not like I didn’t try calling them.”

“What if I gave you the wrong number?”

“Please tell me you’re not serious.”

Lucy smirked.

            The ultimate betrayal.

He never even once thought they she was leading him astray. He was too shocked to say anything in response. And too angry to deal with her any longer. So he got out of the car and approached the passenger side door. Just as he reached to open the door, she locked it on him.

“Unlock it,” Mr. Valentine said, seething. He had enough of her fucking shit.

She refused to cooperate, but Mr. Valentine had a trick of his own up his sleeve.  He removed the keys from his pocket and hit the power lock button, jerking the door open, as Lucy tired in vain to pull it shut.

“Cut it out!”

“Get out of the car.”

She teasingly shook her head no.

“Lucy, I’m giving you to the count of three to get out of the car…”

“What are you going to do if I don’t?”

“One …

He could tell form her fade that she knew he meant business.

“Two … three.”

Frustrated, Mr. Valentine grabbed her by the arm and began to pull her out, but then she pulled him down on her.

As Mr. Valentine reached into the car to pull his fallen star, she finally succeeded in pulling him down on top of her.

And then she kissed him, planting her tongue deep down his throat, before he managed to pull away.

He never thought he could be thoroughly disgusted and ashamed of a kiss. Before he could even fully process it, a gruff voice barked:

“Hey you! Get your damn hands off of my daughter, you son of a bitch!”

“Hi Dad!”

Fuck!

Mr. Valentine caught a flash of a white beard a split second before he was punched square in the jaw. The man then grabbed his daughter from the car.

“Sir, I can explain–”

“C’mon, Lucy.” He then turned to Mr. Valentine. “I’m calling the police!”

Mr. Valentine watched as Lucy’s dad rushed her into the house, holding on to his throbbing jaw.

Somehow, despite really doing nothing wrong, he had a feeling that it wouldn’t matter in the eyes of the law. Especially not in this day and age. Mr. Valentine couldn’t help but feel that time was up.

In the meantime, it was time to go home. Just as he lifted his door handle, he was

whacked in the back of the head with a yellow stick of some sort. He then realized what who the assailant was, as well as well as his accessory of choice.

It was C.J. Wielding a goddam Wiffle Ball Bat!

“C.J.!

“You fucking thief!”

“A Wiffle ball bat… why?”

It hurt way more than he ever would have guessed a Wifflle Bat could hurt.

“Don’t play stupid with me you pedophile fuck! How could you do this to me?”

“Do what to you, C.J.?” Mr. Valentine said, writhing in pain.

“You know exactly what. You stole my girl. You stole my heart. Everything was fine until you started filling her head with all that motivational-you-can-do-everything-follow-your-dreams bullshit. Look where it got you!”

“Maybe you should have been more supportive.”

“Maybe you should have minded your own business.”

“I was just doing my job.”

“Trying to fuck my girlfriend?”

“That was your interpretation.”

“I thought you always said that every story can have more than one interpretation.”

“You should be happy for her—”

Happy for her? Happy that because of you, her dream is suddenly more important than our love?”

“If you really loved her, you would understand,” Mr. Valentine fired back through the lingering pain.

“At the cost of love?” C.J. asked. “Of happiness?”

“Maybe if you had a dream of your own, you’d understand.”

“I had a dream. But then you took her away from me.”

C.J. repeatedly beat Mr. Valentine with his bat, landing most of his strikes on the back of his head.  When he was done, C.J. stood over his English teacher-turned-nemesis and proclaimed:

“Now I finally understand. You really can do anything your heart desires…”

C.J. took off, peeling away from the curb, leaving Mr. Valentine lying in the street next to his car. Pondering the fact that everything he valued most deeply was more than likely gone forever.

As sirens loomed in the distance.

 

A plea…

I don’t want to sound desperate. And I realize that this might sound like I am. But consider this a PSA for myself and every other writer/artist out there. Because we’re all sort of in the same boat.

Like most artists, writers rarely make a dime on their work. More fruitful payment comes in the form of just having their work out there in the world, combined with the support of friends and family.

I have been very fortunate to have published three books so far by small, indie publishers (note: not self-published, despite what many think). Both publishers I have worked with have been incredibly supportive and a joy to work with. I have been especially lucky to have published two books alone just this school year alone (as a teacher, I tend to measure years by school years). Though it might appear that cranking out books comes easy for me, that is far from the truth. The three books I have published were the culmination of years of work:

For example:

My first book (Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine) started out as a screenplay that I started writing in 2001.

My second book (Tales From the Dork Side) was a collection of essays I started writing in 2011.

My third book (Awaiting (Identification) also started out as a screenplay back in 1999.

It was just luck and circumstance that led to me getting all three books published over a three year period.

There is no such thing as an overnight success. I am living proof of that.

And I have no way of knowing when/if another book will ever get published. I have no other books in the pipeline (though I do have a couple dozen short stories and have “started” a handful of novels). But certainly nothing on the horizon.

My latest book — Awaiting Identification — literally represents 19 years of my life — blood, sweat, tears, a failed marriage, a second marriage, and two mini-humans later.

It was the culmination of (no exaggeration) 100s of rejections and a willingness to just keep pushing through at all costs, like Captain Ahab chasing his elusive whale.

I have been blessed with tons of support in a variety of ways from family, friends, and colleagues (and this includes FB likes). And I sincerely appreciate it all. I have been so blessed to have had two publishers Fish Out of Water Books (Jon Wilson and Laurie Ford Wilson) and Fifth Avenue Press. Though it’s sometimes easy to focus on the negativity and the naysayers out there, I have to remind myself all the time that there are far more out there who care than spew poison and indifference.

Maybe I sometimes over-post, or over-promote myself, but it’s only because I am doing everything I can to get my work out there, despite all the noise and competition going against it. After all, for most people, books are boring. And I get that.

I don’t expect every one to buy my book, or come to an event. But please realize that as insignificant my achievement may seem to some, it means the world to me.

So though your support (and for those on the other side, your negativity) serve as my fuel, please consider supporting a local artist (who isn’t starving due to an excellent career by day). Though it would certainly be nice, I am not asking for the sake of financial gain, but rather for the pure joy of sharing my story/stories with you.

So how can you help? The easiest way, of course, is Amazon. There is nothing wrong with that and certainly the most efficient way. The next step? Stop into your local bookstore (some might actually have it on the shelf) and they can order it for you. Sometimes, that urges them to stock the book if they weren’t already. The book can be ordered through distribution channels used by most bookstores.

To get a book into a store, authors/publishers literally have to knock on every door and beg for them to carry. So word of mouth helps tremendously.

You know what else helps tremendously?

Amazon/Goodreads reviews/Facebook shares/Tweets, book clubs, etc.

Even if you are not a reader yourself, we all have friends who are. So please take a moment to help me get the word out any chance you get. You have no idea how much this helps. But please take my word for it.

Thank you…and God Bless!

Love & Mozart

It was the cliché post-college, going-off-to-Europe-to-discover-oneself trip. But I would have only two weeks to do so.

The year of the new millennium.

And though traveling alone, I wouldn’t be completely alone. I would be visiting a various scattered friends and distant relatives. Considering I had stayed home for college, this was only fitting and my general lack of risk taking.

The future not only lay ahead of me. It lay ahead for the entire planet. And with the anticlimactic arrival ofY2K safely behind us, it was time to turn a new leaf.

To start anew.

To become the best version of ourselves.

If it wasn’t going to happen in this millennium, it would never happen at all.

I now look back on that trip the way one might think of an indie coming-of-age film that aimlessly drifts from once scene to the next. Not heavy on plot. But deep on character, theme, and resonance. The trip even adhered to conventional plot structure – a Hero’s Journey, complete with a perfectly-placed climax. No explosions or heavy battle scenes … but just as powerful and life-changing.

The exposition of my journey began with my graduation from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the day before I was to depart for my journey. With my newly-minted English degree in hand and a PR job at Ford Motor Company already lined up, my future was bright (at least on the surface. Inside, I knew that until my writing dream came into fruition, I could never be fully content).

In some ways, having a job already waiting in the wings wore off a bit of the free-spirit luster that a trip like this should include.

The sense of being truly “free”.

But for two weeks, I would have to pretend otherwise. Besides, having a job doesn’t mean one can’t keep one eye open for opportunity.

Despite my degree and job, my future was by no means close to clear.

Should I go back to school to earn a teaching degree?

Or, do I go to film school in full pursuit of my Hollywood dream?

I was convinced I could make it without film school and in my home state of Michigan (if there’s anything that comes close to having a regret in my life, it was my decision not to follow my passion directly to Hollywood).

At the very least, it was my hope that this trip would somehow bring my future into better focus – and that I could perhaps have this epiphany while walking the very streets Mozart once called home.

And, maybe if I were lucky (or, better yet, played my cards right), I would find some European romance along the way. But I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself, considering my track record here at home.

I never played my cards right.

Following my graduation ceremony, my family took me out for dinner. Later that evening, I found myself overcome with a strong wave of unexplained melancholy – the depths of which I hadn’t quite felt before. Perhaps it was the steady cold rain (which became a steady motif throughout my trip). But it was more like the realization that a big chapter of my life was over. The end of one of life’s chapters is always a sad occasion, no matter how much we look forward to the next one.

The sudden realization that something was gone. Forever gone. Life is made up of an endless parade of moments such as this.

Every time we say goodbye to something – or someone – we’re really saying goodbye to a piece of ourselves.

Perhaps it was the realization that I was about to embark on what could turn out be the most memorable experience of my life. I have a tendency to get overpowered by the sad reality that any memorable experience is going to end at some point and become just a memory.

A ghost.

The moments that I believe you get to re-live in your afterlife over and over as though it were the first time. So it was only fitting that as I sat on the cusp of one goodbye, I knew another profound would be lurking just around the corner when my trip was all said and done. I tried to channel my energy into the here and now, but it’s never any use. The only way to avoid it to make yourself numb to all experience. In my experience, that is truly the only way to “live in the moment”.

While sitting on the plane before take-off, I realized that this would be this exact moment I would return to the most following my trip. Because it was the exact moment before any of the memories took place.

At the starting gate.

Before any pictures were snapped.

Before any memories were made.

When the magic of the entire trip lay ahead.

Of course, “in the moment”, you never know what those memories will even be. So it’s hard to appreciate something that doesn’t even exist yet. But once it’s all said and done, it’s all you can think about.

It’s the moment that if granted the ability to back in time to re-live the whole experience, you would rewind to that exact moment. When an unwritten adventure awaited me – one that could never be replicated. Nothing in life can be replicated, but this holds especially true for our most cherished, precious memories.

As I waited for take-off, I plugged my headphones into the armrest and tuned into the plane’s radio, stumbling across Samuel Barber’s sorrowful Adagio for Strings, which accompanied my take-off. Literally the most depressing song ever composed. A song that can turn any moment into a funeral.

As the song — mixed with the cacophony of the plane’s ascent — flooded my ears, memories of the last five years of my life all flooded my soul, as I began to wonder what the future had in store as this transitional chapter began. Then I drifted off to sleep, in search of all the answers I was seeking. When I woke up, there was only a blank canvas. The one thing I needed most.

My agenda for the next two weeks was as follows: Frankfurt and Aachen, Germany followed by Salzburg and Vienna, Austria. Arriving in Frankfurt, I was picked up by the daughter of my Grandmother’s first cousin, Ulls. Despite our common language ability (I could speak only ein bissen Deutcsh and she could speak only a little English), she provided a whirlwind tour of downtown Frankfurt (a memory best described as a jet-lagged lucid dream). Through my hazy consciousness, my initial impression was:

This isn’t Germany. It’s any Big City, USA city, filled with modern, glass skyscrapers. Where were the lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches?!

When we got into her car to head, I fell asleep within minutes (with visions of pretzels and wenches dancing in my head). When I woke up, we were driving through the German countryside.

This is the Germany I had imagined.

Ulla and her parents lived a couple of hours outside of Frankfurt. A quaint, quiet little town that one usually only experiences in cinema. But still missing were lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches.

We finally arrived at their countryside home, where I was enthusiastically greeted by my grandma’s cousin Peti and his wife Susan. Once again, neither spoke English, so I tried to utilized the little German I could muster.

And it wasn’t pretty.

Thank God for non-verbal communication – and for language dictionaries. For the most part, the dictionaries did the trick, especially on a day trip when Peti took me on a boat on the River Rhine, punctuated by grey clouds, a light drizzle and mangled language.

That evening, Peti’s son Ehrhardt arranged for me to hang out with his girlfriend’s 17-year-old daughter, Anya. She was not only super cute, but spoke halfway-super English! Anya and her friend, Eva, took me to a discotheque located in a German strip mall.

Here I was, driving around with two cute girls that I didn’t know existed until that night. The kind of night that becomes encased in the museum of your memory, no matter how insignificant the events played out. The kind you hope to carry with you to the great beyond, where it could be re-lived for eternity. It’s even more rare when you are fully aware of the magnitude of a memory such as this that will live in your soul for the remainder of your days as though it had just happened yesterday.

When we arrived at the club, any fantasy I had of cozying up with either one of these girls was quickly dashed when they quickly proceeded to meet up with their boyfriends. Suddenly, I was a fifth wheel in a foreign land – enveloped in German existentialism as I danced by myself to Snoop Dog’s “Smoke Weed Everyday,” as the Germans sang along:

“Dr. Dre, mother fucker!” (enunciating in place of the more accurate “muthafucka”).

Though I much would have preferred to get some sweet strudel from the schoen fraulein, I was totally content just sitting back and just observing this whole new world play out before my eyes. Besides, this was nothing new for me. Third or fifth wheel was my natural habitat. In fact, had things gone to the contrary, my brain might not have been able to handle it. And it certainly did nothing to tarnish the moment. If I were to find romance in Europe, I still had plenty of time for that. And besides, I figured if such a thing were to happen, it wouldn’t have been in Frankfurt visiting relatives in Frankfurt.

After the club, we drove back to the Anya’s mother’s house, where Eva and I were to stay for the night. We looked through photo albums of Anya’s childhood, as jamming to shitty German pop pouring out of a boombox. Eva expressed how she hoped to come visit the U.S. sometime, and taking this as an opportunity, I extended an open invitation to visit me back home. She seemed thrilled by the prospect (not so much of seeing me again, but of being invited to stay in America). I never saw her again after that night – nor did I ever attempt to contact her. A reminder that, some relationships are shooting stars, destined to last only a split second in the wide canvas our life. However brief, it is sometimes in those seconds that make all the other minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years worth living. Nonetheless, I will never forget Anya and Eva. They are firmly embedded into the fabric of my memory – one square of an enormous, beautiful memory quilt devoted entirely to that trip – attached to an even larger canvas of my life in its entirety.

The next morning, it was time to depart for the next leg of my adventure. Peti took me to the train station, where I set off for the northwestern town of Aachen to visit my friend Janet, who I met through a friend back home. We hung out as a group back at home on numerous occasions and I developed a bit of a crush on her. Well, let’s just a say, a big crush. And though I didn’t expect the crush to be anything but one sided, it was enough of a crush to inspire me to purchase her a silver bracelet.

While on the train, I looked at her bracelet, while listening to listening to Moby’s Play album on my Discman – the de facto soundtrack of my trip that I purchased just before my trip, where it was predestined to become the official soundtrack of my trip. To this day, if I want to fully absorb myself into the memories of this trip, all I have to do is put this album on and memories otherwise forgotten become enhanced or unlocked in my mind. In fact, it’s interesting how many different Moby albums have coincided with such key moments from my life. He is my Danny Elfman to my Tim Burton, or the John Williams to my Spielberg, in my soundtrack of life. Two years later, a trip t Ukraine would be accompanied by his 18 album.

Janet greeted mat the train station, then me back to her house to meet her parents and two brothers. After a satisfying meal, then headed out to meet up with some friends at an Irish pub, where we proceeded to drink Guinness like any Germans in an Irish pub should. We all had a good time, save for Janet’s friend Dirk – an odd duck who kept whispering to me in English:

“I’m going to kill myself tonight.”

I really didn’t know how to deal with this. Perhaps he was confusing words and was trying to come on to me. The good news is, I did him again later during my visit and not only was he still alive, but was in jovial spirits. And better yet, no sweet nothings whispered into my ear.

Late that night, when we got back to Janet’s house, we rolled into our respective beds (or, in my case, on an air mattress on the floor next to Janet’s bed like a dog). Though it was late, I was wide awake, in a tipsy state of consciousness. After much internal debate, I decided no time was better than now to give her my gift. So I reached into my bag and located the silver amulet that accompanied me on my journey.

“Janet?” I said, not even entirely sure she were awake.

“Yeah?”

I leaned into her and handed her the box (in hindsight, probably freaking her out in the process).

“What’s this?” she said, clearly half asleep.

“A present! Open it,” I said, realizing that opening a present in the dark probably not the best idea.

Fortunately, as she lifted the silver chain out of its box, it caught a brief sliver of silver moonlight, before she accidentally dropped it back into the darkness. After a fair amount of scrambling, she finally found it amidst her tangled sheets – my gift taking a part in an unassuming lover’s tryst.

“Thank you! But why did you get me such a nice gift?”

I jumped right in:

“Because I like you. A lot.”

She was very touched, but sensing my intention, she quickly made it abundantly clear that we were “just friends” – the universal language of rejection. A language I understood fully well.

I immediately regretted giving her this present – but not because of the money I spent on it. Why didn’t I at least wait until right before I left so I could avoid spending the rest of our time together in a state of awkwardness? After all, I should have seen this coming. Then again, if I waited until the end, it might have been too late. So I took a gamble. And lost. Fortunately, there was nothing awkward between us. And at least the pressure was off now. In fact, it made us closer – just no closer to romance. I still had plenty of time to find that. It just wasn’t going to be in Aachen.

The next day, Janet arranged for us to go to Köln (aka Cologne) for a couple of days, to visit some of her university friends. More specifically, I would be sleeping in an apartment filled with six college girls – European college girls. Since I stayed home for college, it felt like I was being granted an opportunity to make up for lost time. The only action to be gotten, however, would come in the form of sex acts with Bert and Ernie puppets (clarification: between the puppets – not me and the puppets).

The first night in Köln turned out to be a night of drunken revelry highlighted by bar hopping, dancing, and literally chasing after the last trolley at 3 a.m. down a cobble-stoned street, singing a huge European hit that never quite made it across the pond: Tom Jone’s “Sex Bomb”, which Janet and her friends enjoyed translating into “Sex Bob”. For the record, he U.S. truly missed out on this gem.

Upon our return to Aachen, where the first of two defining moments of my journey took place. I was lying on my air mattress, once again listening to Moby (as I am doing while writing this, 18 years later) while Janet getting dressed in the adjoining bathroom. While listening to the aptly-titled track “Why Does my Heart Feel So Bad,” I was overcome with a torrential downpour of emotion I never felt before that day and haven’t felt since. Although no amount of descriptive prose could ever fully describe what I felt that night, I can at least attempt to. It felt as though every fiber of my being was ripped open and flushed out with tears from the deepest recesses of my heart, mind and soul, while at the same time, absorbing my every tear like a sponge, before releasing them in a soul-cleaning downpour of emotion, as my entire life played out before my eyes, allowing me to see through a brief window of clarity of my past, present, and future. I cried so hard, it hurt. It was, perhaps, the most utterly human I have ever felt. I have never felt this way again.

Looking back, the experience feels paradoxically detached from real life – much in the manner that a good film might tough the deepest recesses of our soul, even though we are simultaneously aware that it isn’t real. I often think back to that moment with a tinge of embarrassment, wondering what was going through Janet’s mind as I wept like a baby on her bedroom floor. Though I tried to hide it from her, it was impossible to hide a soul ripped wide open like that. She discovered me halfway through my jag and held me close to her like a mother comforting a child.

Without a single hint of judgment.

And I never wanted that moment to end.

And it hasn’t.

And much like the earlier bracelet incident, this episode didn’t put an awkward strain on our friendship, either. Once again, it only strengthened it. In the larger context of my life, I look back at that moment now as not only one of the most profound, powerful experiences of my life, but a key turning point – the dawn of an new chapter – a transition into a vast unknown that would only reveal itself in time. I was also aware in that small window of clarity that one day, even that chapter would close. Like all chapters do, in their own unique way.

On my final day with Janet, we headed to the Netherlands, a hop, skip, and a jump away. In fact, it was literally in such close proximity to Aachen, that I sometimes forget to include that country on my list of travels. It didn’t look any different from Germany, with the exception of the cannabis paraphernalia on display in storefronts.

Once again, experience turned cinematic:

A man and a woman.

A quaint town, lined with cobble-stoned streets.

Sidewalk cafes.

Light rain.

Again, right out of a movie.

We stopped for a drink in a café across from a small church. It felt like being inside Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night

She had a coffee.

I had a cocktail.

And we just talked.

And sipped.

As the rain fell.

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

And then suddenly, it was time to move on. It was time to flip the page to the next chapter, as life forces us to whether we want to or not.

I never saw Janet again.

As the years pass, the odds are, I will never see her again. It’s hard to grasp in the midst of moments such as that that there was no ellipses. No next time.

The memory is nothing more than a relic from my collective past – not a forgotten one. But buried.

 

Like so many people we encounter in life, there is tomorrow. There is only the present. And yet that present lives longer in our memories than the more permanent fixtures in our lives.

Janet and I are at least connected on FB, but she doesn’t have much of a presence, but just enough to know she is now living in Australia.

The next day, it was time to depart Aachen and prepare for the next leg of my journey:

Berlin.

In the spirit of a young romantic drifting aimlessly in Europe, I purposely didn’t book any hotels ahead of time. So even though I always knew where I was heading next, not having hotels booked at least created the illusion I was drifting my way across Europe. After all, it’s not in my character to take a risk without some form of training wheels.

I knew no one in Berlin, so it was the first time on my trip I would be totally alone. I attempted to persuade Janet to join me, but she had to go back to work.

Thus began my experiment in isolation. But following my breakdown/epiphany in Aachen, perhaps being alone was exactly what I needed.

If one truly wants to feel alone, than a city as vast and strange as Berlin is the place to be.

It was there that I came to realize that traveling alone is something I cannot recommend enough. You never feel more connected to yourself. This is especially true when you are surrounded by a foreign language, making you feel even more disconnected from the outside world and more in tune with yourself. It also lets you really focus in on every experience, free from distractions that cloud moments spend with others. It is a deeply spiritual experience that cannot be replicated with traveling with companions.

With Moby’s melancholy symphonies filling my ears once again, I was overcome with a wave of existential loneliness I had never felt before. So utterly small. And insignificant. Yet somehow, in that loneliness, I never felt more…alive.

After all, most of life is spent in a numb, zombie – or robotic – state of mind. We are drones, living without feeling. We’re just there. And when and if we feel something, as much as we want it to last forever, we know deep down it’s only temporary. We know that we eventually have to return to our emotional cubicles that make up the days of this thing we call life.

Despite this alienation I felt in Berlin, I knew I was feeling something real. And raw. In fact, Berlin was the perfect city for such a lost state of mind. But that was precisely the problem. I wanted to crawl into my shell. Perhaps a smaller city might have helped matters. But looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Having spent my entire life up until that point playing by the rules, it felt good to be lost for once.

My original plan for my stay in Berlin was to scope out the city’s famous nightlife. Being an avid techno fan, I was quite aware of the role Berlin played during the origins of Detroit techno. Largely ignored in Detroit, the DJs from there made their names known in Berlin and elsewhere throughout Europe. Regretfully, my plan to scout out the clubs where techno was put on the map quickly fizzled out when I realized I would be forced to navigate through Berlin’s underground metro system. Subways were something I had zero experience with. And it stayed that way as fear and loneliness won out. Being directionally impotent is especially challenging when you find yourself in a foreign city. Although, if I learned anything on this trip, it’s that I could actually read a map if I truly put my mind to it.

The navigational equivalent of having a gun held to my head.

In attempt to cure the empty loneliness and general sense of homesickness Berlin was instilling in me, I treated myself to the comfort and familiarity of McDonald’s. It didn’t necessarily make me feel less lonely, but I did discover that their apple pies were still fried like they used to be back home, before they became baked.

The highlight of my anticlimactic trip to Berlin was the surreal experience of staying in a hostel for the first time in my life. It was located in what used to be East Berlin, not far from the largest existing portion of the Berlin Wall. And although I had never been to the former Soviet Union (little did I know lay in store for me a little over a year later), the drab, gray architecture certainly gave me the impression that I had been.

The hostel wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, lacking an elevator, I had to drag my heavy suitcase up several flights of steps. And since I couldn’t figure out how to use the shower, I ended up spraining my foot trying to wash myself under a faucet.

So in lieu of the Berlin nightlife I had hoped to experience, I got a taste of Berlin youth hostel life. From the mentally challenged German rapper in the courtyard, to the underground bunker bar, the cinematic feel to my trip suddenly became overtly Lynchian.

Accessing the bunker bar required one to climb down a rusty ladder through jagged concrete, which dumped you into the bar, which was roughly the size of a closet in width, and a crawl space in height. Although climbing down was challenging enough, the climb back up after a few German brews is a challenge of a different sort. Unless, of course, you are an Irish lothario who left the bunker repeatedly through the night to bang a different foreign chicks, only to return fifteen minutes for his next conquest. Meanwhile, I remained in my natural state – a wallflower and soaked in my surroundings until I could no longer stay awake, temporarily living my life vicariously through the Irish Don Juan the Leprechaun.

The next day, I took a walking tour of the city, which was fascinating from a historical standpoint, passing the site where Hitler’s bunker once stood, as well as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning.

Looking back, my days in Berlin reminded me of my brief tour of Frankfurt upon my arrival – an impressionistic blur of dreams standing in for reality.

The next leg of my journey was one-day stay in the southern Germany town of Passau, where I was to meet Katrin – a friend of my German co-worker Mark, who was doing an internship in the U.S.

This was the same town that my grandmother passed through during the war. It was here where my grandmother, her sister and mother ducked beneath a bridge as a train carrying ammunition exploded just yards away from them. And just yards away from that very bridge was my hostel. It was impossible to fathom what my grandmother endured.

I had a chance to correspond with Katrin a couple of times prior to my trip (handwritten letters at that!) so we could get to know one another a little bit – at least, on the surface.

And perhaps, if I played my cards right, I would be leaving my heart in Passau? After all, as Mark so eloquently described her, “she will suck you both day and night.” It sure sounded tempting, but I quickly ruled out any prospects of this happening when she all but blew me off in an entirely different way.

After Katrina helped check me into a hostel, she escorted me to a beer garden, where I was left to my own devices for the next several hours – something about having to attend a dance class, if I understood correctly. While she was gone, I consumed the two largest beers I ever had in my life, still holding out hope for Das Suck. At some point after my first beer, I got up to use the restroom and nearly toppled over from the numbing buzz I was feeling.

When Katrin returned, she retrieved me and literally had to help me out of the garden. She then explained that she had a bad headache and that she would be unable to entertain me that evening. We said goodbye and that was the last I ever saw or heard of her. I then took myself to an empty dance club, where I sat alone in a corner, munching on pretzels and feeling sorry for myself. At least nothing exploded yards away from me. The only discomfort I was forced to deal with was the claustrophobia of my hostel room, which literally consisted of nothing more than a bed tightly wedged in between the walls. If the bed were half an inch larger, it wouldn’t have fit. Hell, if it were a millimeter larger it wouldn’t have fit.

The next day, I boarded a train and left Germany behind for Austria. With my trip now past the halfway mark, I began to wonder if my trip reached a premature climax in Aachen, completely throwing conventional plot structure out of whack, while still desperately hoping that a truly magical experience was waiting for me around a cobblestone corner that would match the intensity of the earlier experiences. Perhaps a new country would bring better luck.

My next destination was Salzburg, Austria.

From the moment I stepped off the train, I fell in love with the town at first sight before any memories were actually formed there It was pure magic. Quaint, narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. A medieval fortress hovering above the whole city from up above, which was somehow always in view.

And the music.

Music everywhere.

Street musicians, mostly. Add it all up, and it was like a something out of a fairy tale or Disney movie!

Whereas most of my fellow Americans equated Salzburg with Julie Andrews and her brood of happy, singing children, I had always equated Salzburg as the hometown of Mozart.

This was my Graceland!

After my hostel experience in Berlin, I decided I would treat myself to a halfway decent hotel. In other words, a place that left at least two inches of space between the bed and walls. And preferably with a private shower. Of course, in Europe, there were no guarantees.

I stumbled upon a hotel called Hotel am Dom, tucked inside one of Salzburg’s famed cobblestone streets, just outside the city square — the centerpiece of which is the horse head fountain Julie Andrews pranced around in The Sound of Music.

The lobby had a cozy, welcoming feel to it, featuring a desk with carved, dark brown oak lending to a warm and inviting atmosphere. My room was narrow with two twin beds running along side a wall, but in comparison to the hostel in Passau, it was the lap of luxury! Even so, the beds were so small, an elf would barely fit. Then again, I was in a fairy tale world, so it only made sense. I opened up the windows, and instantly, a soothing breeze poured in, along with soothing mash-up of classical music, punctuated by the enormous Glockenspiel overlooking the square. Then came the bagpipes playing “Scotland the Brave”, a played during the procession at my graduation just a couple of weeks prior. On one hand, it was a small and insignificant coincidence. On the other hand, I smiled back at fate and soaked it all in, lying peacefully in my dwarf-sized bed.

After a short nap, I headed out to explore the town. First on the list were Mozart’s cribs: Mozart Gerburstshaus (birth house) and Mozartwohnhaus (the house he lived in as an infantile adult). Although heavily renovated over the years, especially from the damage inflicted by the ravages of World War II, it was still awe-inspiring to be in the same geographic space that Mozart himself not only lived in, loved in, laughed in, cried in, shit in, but most importantly – composed his wonderful art in.

In the middle of the main room of his the Wohnhaus, there were several listening booths. I sat at one and listened to my favorite Mozart composition: “Concert No. 21 in C Major.” This composition perfectly captures every aspect of Mozart’s personality, shifting from playful and light to sadly reflective.

The absolute embodiment of bittersweet.

As its soothing melody washed over my entire being, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was perhaps composed in this very same space. It was a truly spiritual experience – not wholly unlike my previous Moby moment, but more spiritually cleansing, rather than the existential crisis that was.

 

those rare instances where you feel truly at peace. At that exact moment, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Just me and the music.

At that moment, nothing else existed.

Nothing else mattered.

The song ended.

And I was part of the world again.

When I finished the tour, I passed through a gift shop and bought a myself a little bust of Mozart, of which I made the cut clerk crack up when I approached the register with my souvenir butchered the German language with “Ich wolle einem kleine Mozart Kopf, bitte.” (A butchered attempt at “I would like a little Mozart head, please.”).

Well rested, I headed up the funicular train to the top of the medieval castle to take in a spectacular view of the city and beyond. Out in the distance, dotting the were charming little Bavarian homes with flowerpots lining each window peppered the countryside, set against a backdrop that gave one little choice but to belt out “The hills are alive!”

While wandering through the fortress, I fancied myself a medieval minstrel. And then lo and behold, a voice screamed: “Help!” from somewhere up above. But this was no damsel in distress. It was a man about my age just happened to be a fellow metro Detroiter. Apparently, he wandered into a tower and a door locked behind him. I told him not to fear and searched for help. He was released from the tower by a custodian-in-shining-armor and I headed back to my hotel, where I booked a tour for the following day, setting in motion the magic I was desperately seeking.

Her name was Julia.

She was my tour guide, but also a college student who had lived in Salzburg her whole life. She was cute, in the plain-Jane sort of way that I was generally attracted to. She greeted me in the lobby of my hotel, leading me to her empty tour van with a Salzburg Sightseeing Tour decal affixed to it.

“Hop in,” she said.

“Will it just be me?” I asked.

“If you’re lucky,” she said with a wry smile.

Turned out, I was only her first pick-up, but ultimately not her only customer. She was impressed that I was one of the few Americans who opted not to take the Sound of Music too. She was also impressed by our mutual adoration for Mozart. Soon, the entire van was filled and we headed off to see the sights. When it was over, I thanked her, shook her hand and headed back to my room to get ready for the dinner-concert I was attending, which consisted of a fancy dinner by candlelight, accompanied by opera performers singing Mozart. The whole time, I wished I had someone to share this experience with.

Somebody like Julia.

When it was over, I drifted out for the Salzburgian nightlife, in a Holden Caulfield frame of mind.

I crossed one of the many bridges over the Salzach River over to the left bank, where a tidy row of pubs, clubs and sidewalk cafes overlook the river. I wandered into a couple of establishments, was dressed up and confident I would work up the courage to converse with a stranger from the opposite sex. Of course, it wasn’t long before I remembered who I was and reverted to my usual shy self.

My final stop was yet another Irish pub, which turned out to be less low-key than I would have guessed, as evident by the packed house and live raucous Irish music.

I made my way through the crowded pub toward the bar and grabbed a Guinness, scanning the room for a spot to sit among the wooden tables with wooden stools made of tree stumps. (Once again, fit for an elf). Unfortunately, all the stumps were taken, so I had to stand against a wooden post, forced to endure the heavy foot traffic walking back and forth in the tight space I was able to position myself.

I was giving serious thought to quickly downing my beer, then heading back to my hotel to watch The Simpsons auf Deutsch.

And then I spotted her.

Julia.

Sitting on a stump with a group of friends, wearing a blue sundress and make-up, instantly elevating her from plain cute to very cute. She was alternating cautious sips of Guinness with long drags of a cigarette, with a resigned sadness on her face. Or perhaps, it was only boredom. In any event, I couldn’t help but ponder the sheer coincidence of what was taking place before me.

As I stood against my post, nervously nursing my beer, I tried to muster the courage to approach her. I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, but in typical Bobby fashion, I was frozen in terror at the mere thought of approaching a female — even one who I already met. Fortunately, she hadn’t spotted me yet. Nor, did I necessarily expect her to recognize me.

This afforded me more time to hatch a plan.

Write out my dialogue.

Choreograph my every move.

Or, just plain escape

And there was always the possibility that before I could do any of those things, she could have spotted me. And then hopefully approach me. It would have certainly made things easier. That would save me a lot of agony, especially with the nagging thought playing in the back of my mind that she wouldn’t recognize me if I approached her. Perhaps that’s why she hadn’t noticed me yet.

After a long and protracted debate in my mind —combined with the half pint of Guinness flowing through my veins — I decided that the time had come. I would take the plunge. I didn’t come this far to be my usual self. Not after my Moby epiphany back in Aachen.

This was a new chapter.

A new life.

I was born again.

And with that in mind, I headed toward her table, awkwardly standing next to her for several minutes, unnoticed. I finally tapped her on the shoulder. Startled, she turned around. Instant recognition washed over her face in the form of an inviting smile and a friendly “Hello.”

“Hi,” I responded back. Or, at least a guttural sound that closely resembled “hi”.

So what next? Smoothly, I offered my hand. She shook it.

“Bob, right?”

She remembered my name!

“Yeah. Julia, right?”

She nodded, then invited me to sit down, then introduced me to her friends – a group of three other girls. They asked me questions about America. We played movie charades. They laughed at my lame attempts at German. I admired their mastery of the English language.

And at about 1:30, it was time to part.

Outside the pub, Julia said goodbye to her friends and then headed over to her bicycle, locked to a rack. It was one of those old-fashioned bikes, complete with basket and bell. All that was missing was a puppy! Like right out of a foreign film.

I naturally assumed that this was where we would part. But then:

“Would you like to take a walk?” she offered.

I didn’t hesitate. Nor did I care that I had an early morning train to catch to Vienna.

As we wandered across the Mozart Bridge over the Salzach River, walking her bike by her side, we talked.

And talked.

And talked.

Like old pals — not new acquaintances – separated by a lifetime across the Atlantic.

We talked about life in Salzburg.

And life in Michigan.

And of dreams and aspirations, disappointments and triumphs, as the ancient cobblestones beneath our feet welcomed us every step of the way. And before we knew it, we were in the city square. And we were completely alone. We were on a stage, built entirely for us — a stage upon which a love story would be performed.

And the church bells chimed two.

Like me, Julia was at a crossroads in her life, not sure what her next step would be. She felt stuck in her job as a tour guide (taking people around, but never going anywhere herself) and stuck in Salzburg as a whole. I asked her how anyone could grow sick of a place as magical as this. And that’s when I realized that no matter where you grow up, home is home and away is away. Apparently even if home is a place as magical as Salzburg! And sometimes, we all have to go away to remind us of what there is to appreciate about home. Sometimes, we never return home at all. We move on. We outgrow. We spread our wings. And fly. While those we leave behind bid us adieu out of the window where our next chapter awaits.

We entered the empty square – like a movie set built for just us. She lead me to the horse-head fountain’s ledge in the center of the square, saying nothing, but speaking volumes as we stared up into the starry sky instead. Every star in the universe was on full display – a sky that normally only exists in an artist’s imagination. We played a game to see how who could locate the most constellations. She won. The only one I could recognize was Orion.

I told her about my Austrian-born grandmother. She laughed in astonishment when I told her one of my grandmother’s stock phrases was: “Gehen hund sei arse.” Translation: “Go up a dog’s butt.” Something she would say when something was said didn’t like or agree with. Usually in jest. But not always. And she would say this to us as children. I never thought about how utterly strange this was until that moment. And Julia continued to laugh, as did I.

I suddenly found myself acting upon a compulsion to take Julia’s bike for a spin around the fountain, ringing the bell like a sugar-rich toddler. And she watched. And she laughed, as I went around and around and around. And she laughed when I wiped out on the gravel, scraping my legs a bit. But it was worth it just to make someone laugh like that.

Voices echoed somewhere in the distance. How dare somebody intrude upon our performance? A drunk couple entered, stage right, staggering across our proscenium until they disappeared down an empty, cozy street.

And we were alone once again.

But then again, we weren’t entirely alone. Waiting for us across the square was our mutual friend Mozart, standing guard over the city square. Making sure we utilized every prop on our stage, we headed across the square across to pay him a visit. By then, an evening chill demanded us to take notice, so I took this as my cue to put my arm around her.

There was no thinking about it.

I just did it.

Of course, the chilly night temperature certainly helped make it easier for me to make my move.

We remained that way in a comfortable silence, soaking it all in until next thing I knew, our lips were locked. It was one of those kisses that came out of nowhere and no matter how many times your mind tries to replay it, you never can quite replicate it in the recesses of your memory.

The magical, fairy-tale setting surrounding us only deepened the magic of the moment, tarnished only by the cold, faint taste of a stale cigarette.

How as this real life? My life?

 

I was convinced that it was one of those dreams you wake up from and feel instant regret that it was only a dream. But there was no waking up from this. In fact, I had never been more awake and in tune with life than I was in that moment. Looking back at it, all these years later, it feels more like the memory of well-made romantic drama than a memory I actually experienced in reality.

We continued to kiss and as I leaned into her in the throes of passion, this budding romantic drama turned into a romantic comedy as my body pressing into hers caused her to slip off the two-foot tall railing and into the landscaping beneath Mozart’s statue.

Mozart, the merry prankster, certainly appreciated it, smiling down at us with approval. However, before I could appreciate the humor of the moment, I had to first make sure Julia’s skull wasn’t cracked open, spilling blood onto the flowers below, turning our romantic drama-turned comedy into a murder mystery.

Fortunately, the only victims were the flowers, crushed beneath her body as she quivered with hysterical, uncontrollable laughter over what just transpired. In fact, she was laughing so hard, she struggled to get up, despite my best efforts to help her up. When she finally regained her composure, I lifted her off the ground, then brushed the foliage off her dress, before we resumed kissing.

And kissed some more.

And more.

And more.

And when the clock struck three, she said these dreaded words:

“I should really get going.”

I tried to play it cool.

“It is pretty late,” I said.

“But don’t think it’s because I want to,” she said, sensing my sadness. “I just have to work tomorrow.”

“I totally understand.”

I had the sudden urge to invite her back to my room, but didn’t want to get too overzealous and risk ruining the magic and beauty of this night.

She kissed me, as though to reassure me not to worry.

Before she left, we exchanged contact info, then snapped a picture of each other in front of Mozart’s likeness, preserving the moment in a happily ever after.

We kissed again, fully aware that it was the last time. That we would likely never cross paths again, making the moment even more perfectly bittersweet. And then she hopped onto her bike, smiled and rode away stage left down a faintly lit cobbled-stoned street. And then, she was gone, leaving me alone on stage with Mozart, who offered me a congratulatory nod and wink.

I decided to keep Mozart company for a little while longer, soaking in the tranquil stillness of the empty square, realizing that I was living a moment that could never be replicated, yet would be carried forever in the scrapbook of my mind.

As I sat alone, beneath the likeness of Herr Mozart, I saw through his eyes exactly what he sees day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year and decade after each passing decade. Sitting there, I pondered just how truly alone I was at that moment and the moments that just preceded it. How many people before me shared a similar experience as I just had in that same spot? How many have yet to experience it, having no idea as to what magical fate awaited them? I wanted to tell each and every one of them to cherish that they have not yet shared in my experience and to appreciate every moment leading up to it. Because at some undetermined point in the future, the moment would be over. And in its place, a faded memory, a yellowed photograph torn at the edges.

A former reality turned into memory.

Trapped in time.

The actual, physical moment forever out of reach.

Resigned to live on forever in abstract memory.

And it was upon that realization that I floated back to my hotel, never more awake and alive – yet so utterly exhausted – and starry-eyed. Never more free. And so full of potential and hopes and dreams.

I snuggled into my fairy-tale bed, in a fairy-tale hotel in a fairy-tale city, regretting that I didn’t ask her to come back with me, but also glad I didn’t.

What if?

Unable to sleep, so I flipped on the television. And lo and behold was The Sound of Music, just as Julie Andrews skipped around the horse fountain singing “Do-Re-Mi.”

The next morning, I headed to the train station for the final leg of my journey. Vienna – Mozart’s place of death. As I made my final pass through the square, I grew hopeful that I would see her one last time, perhaps leading a group of Americans on a Sound of Music tour, with one eye looking out for me. I kept searching all the way to the train station. But it wasn’t meant to be. And as much I was hoping to spot her one last time, I knew deep down that it was better off this way. That somehow, seeing her again – in the light of day – would have taken away some of the magic of the night before, weakening the memory as it was preserved. No doubt, it would have been awkward. What would I say? What would she say? Besides, she would be working, so the moment would have felt awkward and detached.

Besides, I had a train to catch to Vienna.

But what if I didn’t catch the train? What if I decided to remain in Salzburg, if not for the remainder of my trip, but forever? What did I have to lose? Farfetched, sure. But possible. Anything’s possible. Life has not tied me down yet. I did not have to let life tie me down.

I became suddenly aware of how easy it is to alter the entire course of your life with just one decision. And how much easier it is to simply stay the course.

But then I remembered who I was. And as I looked behind me, I saw that the training wheels were still on after all.

As we wander through life, people come in and out of our lives, like characters in a play, protagonists and antagonists alike. Some stay for a scene. Some stay for an act. And some stay forever after. But they all have a purpose. Sometimes, it’s the minor characters we remember the most and that have far more lasting impact than the characters in our everyday lives.

Shooting stars. Brief encounters that are not only as deep and impactful as the ones we have with the leading characters in our lives, but at times – even more so. An isolated memory oasis, free from the constraints and strains of lasting relationships. As I’ve grown older, I no longer look back and wonder “what if.” I simply regard moments such as these as “what was.” And it was at that moment that I first began to realize this.

Content with this realization, I boarded my train, not taking my eye off the window, until Salzburg was behind me.

Six years later, I returned to Salzburg with my (now ex) wife, Olya – also from a land far-far-away and also somebody I met through magical fate – a chance meeting that turned out to be much more than one magical night in a fairy-tale world. Not to mention the subject of my first book.

We traveled in reverse order from my previous trip to Vienna and then Salzburg, before heading to Ukraine to visit her family. And six years later, nothing had changed. It was then, just as it was six years before and just like it was when Mozart roamed the cobble stoned streets and his ancestors before him. The only thing that had changed since my previous trip was me.

Gone was the free-spirited, what-do-I-do-next-with-my-life version of myself. In its place was a far more grounded, secure and content self. And, in perhaps a fitting symbolic tribute to how utterly full and complete my life was in that moment, the once empty square was filled with bleachers, tents, and thousands of soccer fans watching the World Cup championship game between Italy vs. Germany on an enormous projection screen. And even then, just as I had done six years earlier, I kept an eye out, wondering … hoping … but then realizing that once the doors to the past are closed, we can never re-enter them no matter how hard we try.

And as crowded as that square was, there he stood.

The maestro.

Alone.

With both eyes open.

Quietly taking it all in, as always.

Whether others care to join him or not.

 

A Penny for 50 Cent’s Thoughts

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Some things in life can’t be predicted. Take, for instance, a chance encounter with 50 Cent.

After my first book Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine was published, I tried to think out of the box as much as possible in (usually failed) attempts at getting word out about my book. So if something caught my eye that I felt had any remote connection to my book whatsoever, I would jump on it immediately, leaving no stone unturned.

I realize now that many of these were misguided efforts to “bank” on my sudden “success” as a published author. Realize that “success” in this context simply the act of getting published – making a single cent was a whole other issue (let alone 50 cents).

My book doesn’t have a whole to do with vodka to be honest. I mean, there are certainly ample amounts, but the focus of the book is on my travel adventures in Ukraine, rather than a history of vodka…or love for that matter (though I devote a couple paragraphs to the history of vodka…and several chapters to love itself).

So I decided to milk the vodka angle for what it was worth. One event in particular caught my eye – an enormous vodka tasting festival called Vodka Vodka! inside the historic Royal Oak Music Theater just outside Detroit. Dozens of vodka vendors would be on hand, as well as models, a DJ, and miscellaneous other modes of entertainment.

But mostly vodka.

I figured I would fill a niche. I mean, who isn’t looking for a book when they come to a vodka-tasting event? Get people drunk enough and they will do anything.

On a whim, I contacted to the festival organizers to inquire about getting a both to peddle my wares.

“So what kind of vodka is this?”

“No, it’s not vodka. It’s a book. About vodka. Well, not really about vodka. Vodka’s in the title.”

In response to my jabbering, I was finally given a quote of $500.

Let me make this clear: I can’t even do the math required to determine how many books would be required to even break even. Let’s just say it would require a delivery truck and a forklift.

I couldn’t even sell that many copies at a book convention where the only book available was mine.

Suddenly, I found myself thrust into unfamiliar territory: the art of negotiation. Somehow, I managed to talk my way down to $250 when I essentially explained the pitiful reality of how much money there was to be made in this for me. Even at that rate, I would still be in the red, but I managed to convince myself that the exposure would make it all worth it in the end. Besides, I was also hoping to partner with a local vodka distillery with the hope of some sort of cross-promotional partnership (it never happened).

As the event drew nearer, I started having serious doubts as to why I was willing to shell out so much money just so I could sit awkwardly at a table with a stack of my books that would never sell. Hell, if I wanted to go for the eye candy alone, I could have just bought a ticket and attended the event as a spectator.

Just when I was about to inquire about getting a refund, I received an e-mail announcing a special guest celebrity who would be in attendance.

And just who might be gracing us with his/her presence? None other than:

The man.

The myth.

The legend.

50 Cent.

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But why?

On the surface, it made little sense.

But I came to realize that he was there to promote Effen Vodka, which he was somehow involved with.

And just like that, I had a singular focus: get my book into 50’s hands. At all costs. And it would be worth every last cent (it no longer mattered that I was unlikely to make the equivalent of his monetary moniker).

So why this irrational excitement for a washed up rapper who was never that great to begin with? It wasn’t like I was a huge 50 Cent fan even back when he was a thing. (Who was?) I mean, a casual fan, yes. (Who wasn’t?) And it wasn’t like rappers were a coveted demographic for my book. Not to say they wouldn’t like it. Point is, the idea of getting 50 Cent a copy of my book quickly became my latest obsession just for the randomness of it. I didn’t care if I didn’t actually meet him. But one way or another, my book would.

The event finally arrived – a cold, Michigan January night. My publisher, Jon, and I headed to the venue, hauling a couple of boxes of books inside, found our booth, nestled between Tito’s Handmade Vodka and a stairwell, which at least ensure maximum visibility. Attendees were sure to at least notice the book. The bright yellow cover drew people like moths to light.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turned out, most people didn’t so much as glanced in our general direction, their internal GPS wired to take them directly en route to the next vodka booth. A small handful glanced our way, but nothing more than a precursory one. And often seemed annoyed by the books’ very presence.

After we settled in, we cashed in a couple of drink tickets to sample some vodka, but otherwise remained stationed at our booth. Jon made noble attempts to pass out post cards promoting the book – most of which were either ignored, or dropped to the ground seconds later, where they would be trampled on by the increasingly drunken attendees.

And an hour into the event, there was no sign of 50 Cent.

Where was the motherfucker?

Maybe it was all a ruse. Maybe he changed his plans. Then again, what else would 50 Cent possibly have on his agenda?

The Effen Vodka booth, which was located about four booths or so away from mine was certainly far more elaborate than everyone else’s.

For one thing, it included a VIP lounge.

And in the middle of the lounge was none other than a dancer pole.

Certainly seemed tailor-made for the 50-cent king himself!

At one point, Jon decided to make the rounds, and I remained behind to man the booth. We weren’t exactly staying busy.

As I sat there twiddling my thumbs, peering over two evenly stacked piles of books, I observed a clearly intoxicated woman in her late making it a point to make out with just a bout any random guy she could get her hands on. Particularly, random guys under 30. Most went along with it, as it was safe to assume that they were probably intoxicated, too.

Then she headed my way. The first one to actually pay a modicum of attention to us.

And she was drunk as fuck.

“What is this?” she asked, pointing at my table.

Though I sort of assumed she was getting at my books, I still wasn’t entirely sure. My guess is that she was wondering where the fucking vodka was (not to be confused with Effen Vodka).

“What are these,” the woman asked, as though discovering books for the first time.

“Books!” I said with feigned enthusiasm. By that point, I was feeling pretty down about this $250 decision – even with the promise of 50 Cent looming.

“What kind of books?”

“A memoir. Love & Vodka.”

“Oh, does it have vodka recipes?”

“No. It’s about my experiences traveling in Ukraine.”

“Oh. So you are some kind of author?”

“Yes. Some kind for sure.”

“Ohhh, I’ve never been with an author before”, she said, rubbing her finger alongside my cheek.

“Oh, well, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, utterly flabbergasted.

“I can’t remember the last time I read a book,” she said with a hearty chuckle.

“Well, then you should read this one!”

“Yeah. Right,” she said with a sarcastic laugh.

And with that, she walked away. Better than nothing!

Within seconds, she was making out with a douchebag in a faux hawk.

I suddenly found myself asking: is a vodka festival such a good idea to begin with? It just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Anyway, I wasn’t there to judge.

I was there to sell books.

And meet 50 Cent.

Almost another hour passed by with 1.) no sales and 2.) no sign of 50 Cent.

What was more likely to happen? Sell a book? Or, 50’s arrival?

Probably 50 Cent.

A duo of attractive and presumably highly-intoxicated (but not anywhere as obnoxious) women approached.

Perhaps I would work my nerdy charm and sell a fucking book.

“Hello!” one of them said – the clearly far more sober one. Her friend was really struggling to stand on her own two feet and seemed mostly oblivious to everything.

“Hi there!” I said, hoping for the best. But expecting the worst.

“So is this your book?”

“Yes, it is!”

“How cool! You wrote it?”

“Yep. Every word. And edited by this guy right here,” I said, pointing to Jon, still eagerly attempting to hand out postcards to anyone who passed by.

The less-drunk woman grabbed a copy and started thumbing through it. Despite reading the back cover, she still felt compelled asked:

“What’s it about?”

“My travel experiences in Ukraine.”

“So it’s fiction?”

“No. Non-fiction. Memoir.”

“So you went to Russia?”

“No. Ukraine.”

She continued to analyze the book like a scientist unique specimen. Unlike my previous customer, she seemed to at least understand what a book was.

“I’ll buy it!”

“Great, thanks!”

“Will you sign it?”

“Of course! Who should I make it out to?”

“Maria.”

“With one ‘M’?” I joked.

“What?”

“Nevermind.” I got to work signing her book, which I wrapped up by with my signature fox, which looked more like a rat.

As I continued writing, she asked me:

“So are you excited about 50 Cent?”

“Yeah! Very excited.”

“I hope to get his autograph, too! And maybe a little something more, if you know what I mean.”

“That would be awesome!” I responded, handing my book over to her.

“$15.00.”

“Do you accept credit card?”

“Sadly, not. I don’t have one of those card reader things.”

“Let me ask my friend. Britney, do you have cash?”

What Britney seemed to have was an extremely high blood-alcohol level, as she continued to struggle to find her balance.

“What?” Britney asked.

“Cash. I need cash.”

“How much?”

“$15.00.”

“I don’t think so. Let me check.”

She clumsily dug through her wallet. All she could produce were seven singles.

“I’m so sorry,” Maria said.

Now under ordinary circumstances, this would mean no sale. But since the book was personalized, I would either have to wait for another Maria to buy my book…or, sell it to her for a deep discount, which would mean I would lost $3.00 on the book when it was all said and done (now that math, I could handle).

“Are you sure?” Maria asked.

“Yes. For me, the satisfaction comes from knowing that somebody read my book. Enjoy!”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“Don’t worry.”

“No, I will. Are you on Facebook?”

“Yes! Feel free to add me!”

She never did. But at least I was going home with one less book.

That was as close to a sale as I would get that night. The question remained, however: would I be able to hand deliver a copy to the 50 Cent? I was beginning to hope that he would show up, let alone get my book to him.

As Maria and Britney made their way down the steps to the next booth, Britney tumbled, spilling the entire contents of her purse. Lying on the ground were what appeared to be several bills. Even if they were only singles, they certainly would have covered the balance of what they owed me.

And then:

“Ladies and gentleman!” said the emcee’s booming voice, as 50 Cent’s 2002 smash hit “In Da Club” started blasting throughout the theater. The crowd went nuts. Because everyone knew what this meant, even before the announcement was made:

“The moment we’ve all been waiting for! Put your hands together for 50….Cent!”

Louder cheers. A mob of people rushed toward the Effen Vodka booth as an entourage entered to a medley of 50’s Greatest Hits (all of which were said and done by 2005).

The hits included snippets of such golden chestnuts as: “Candy Shop”, “P.I.M.P.”., “21 Questions”, “Just a Lil Bit”, “Disco Inferno” and “Wanksta”.

The half-dollar king had entered the building! And the world couldn’t be a better place…for “just a lil bit”.

Though I couldn’t make get a visual on 50 himself, it was a safe bet that he was insulated by his posse, as he made his way toward his booth, which now showcased a half-naked dancer twirling on the pole.

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Throngs of women (liquored up enough to believe that it was 2002 and that thongs were still in fashion) rushed the booth, hoping to get a piece of 50. I even spotted Maria, pulling a hapless Britney along by the hand, determined to get an autograph… and the full 50 Cent piece.

After a few minutes, as a crowd gathered around the V.I.P. booth five rows thick, it became apparent that 50 had no desire to drink vodka – or Bicardi for that matter – with the masses. Didn’t matter if was anyone’s birthday as far as 50 Cent was concerned.

I would need to find a way to penetrate through 50 Cent’s remaining, rabid female fan base.

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I was less concerned about my ability to do so and more concerned how others might assume I was that desperate to get a piece of the magic stick. But I wasn’t going to let judgments from the masses deter me. Not after I got this far! Without a moment to lose, I grabbed a copy of my book and personalized it as follows:

           

Dear 50 Cent,

Hope you enjoy my book. Always and forever a fan.

Regards,

R.J. Fox

Of course, I included my patented fox drawing and put my contact info in there for good measure. Because doing so at least magnified my chance of hearing directly from him, than if I didn’t include it at all.

I realized that if my plan didn’t work out, then I would be forever stuck with it. And unlike “Maria”, I would have a much lesser chance of finding another 50 Cent. Signing it was a calculated risk I had to take. Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that my destiny was sealed.

I took a deep breath and headed toward the two-quarter hip hop legend – or, at least the crowd of people surrounding him – all clamoring for the same thing, I realized that having a tangible item to deliver to him might actually improve my chances.

I stopped just short of shouting “Special delivery for 50 Cent!”

I strategized to find my best point of entry. After several attempts at getting nowhere fast, I decided I was going to have to be more aggressive. Nobody was going to politely allow me to push past them. I would just have to plow through, looking like the biggest dick in the process. Clearly, nobody was giving up on the hope that 50 would actually interact with them, which would have made my life so much easier if they had. I just had to work my way through, one female fan at a time.

And next thing I know, I was standing on the outer edge of his 50’s lair, smack dab in front of the pole and dancer. And then, I spotted him…sittin’ on a couch, watching the same dancer I was, and sipping on a drink.

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I felt a kinship to him like no other for that one moment.

I even managed to snap a few pics.

But now what?

I noticed a couple of sentries guarding the VIP lair’s entrance. That was my golden ticket! But it required muscling my way past more women eager to do the same. But I already got this far. Now, I just had to move laterally about 15 feet.

But my biggest challenge lay ahead.

The first few feet were a cinch.

But standing a half dollar between me and fifty were three large black women who did not want a scrawny white boy taking a piece of the birthday cake.

“Oh, hell no!”

“Who the fuck this boy think he is?”

And next thing I knew, I was flat on my ass, knocked down in what I think was an accident, despite not being fully sure.

I sat back up and from my vantage point, watched the women attempt to bust through security, but they were promptly turned away.

“Fuck this shit,” the one who “accidentally” knocked me down said. “Let’s go get some motherfuckin’ Goose.”

And there was my opening.

On the precipice of a dream!

I walked right on up to security, who braced themselves for a ruckus.

“So, I’m the author of this book here. And was wondering if I could some how, um, get this book to Mr. 50 Cent.”

They looked at me, then the book, then me again.”

“You wrote this?” one of them asked.

“Sure did! The whole thing! Since he’s into vodka, thought he might like to read this.”

“Okay, sure. We’ll get it to him.”

I handed my book over. And then watched my book pass not through just one channel of security. Not two channels. Or, even three. But four. And then, through a small opening, I saw 50 Cent himself receive my book. And it required someone having to stand between 50 Cent…and the 50-cent dancer was he was ogling over with quasi-indifference. He stared down at my book, then produced an expression that seemed to suggest “What da fuck?”

And then I walked away.

Triumphant.

I often wonder whatever happened to that copy of my book.

For all I know, 50 tossed it into the first trashcan he found. Or, pawned it off onto a member of his entourage. Or, perhaps he left it in his V.I.P. booth, leaving it totally up for grabs (which more than likely meant trash).

Of course, it was also possible he kept it, but never read it, nor has any intention to. I also acknowledge the possibility that just maybe 50 Cent has read my book. Stranger things have happened!

At the very least, I take great pleasure in knowing the possibility that – if only for one fleeting moments – there existed a copy of my book addressed to fucking 50 Cent. How many writers can take claim of that fact?

I could hold my head up high, no longer a wanksta…but much more gloriously, a gangsta.

The bottom line is this: I went in with a goal. And left with the goal accomplished.

And in this business, success in measured in small increments. One cent at a time.

 

 

Velvet Unicorn

“You’ll know it when you see it – or, more specifically feel it,” a hopeless romantic once told him (but since divorced).

With further elaboration, the “it” being the elusive unicorn Mark was seeking…and was lead to believe was out there.

Somewhere.

Just where this magical, mythical being was hiding, was anybody’s guess. Living with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, perhaps? He truly wanted to believe it existed. Once upon a time, he had no doubt. But it’s always only a matter of time before reality overshadows fantasy.

He certainly had ample reason to have his doubts – especially lately. But he was willing to suspend disbelief and give it a shot, joining the ranks of those who not only believed that unicorns existed, but believed that it was just a matter of waiting for the universe to help you find your very own.

Of course, it’s much easier to believe in such a thing when you are young and naïve – akin to a child’s belief in Santa. But as time goes by, it eventually fades into the rabbit hole oblivion of myth.

When we’re young still young, we are often struck by Cupid and can’t help but believe in it. But overtime, most come to see it as fool’s gold. And though Mark’s belief in true love was almost fully extinguished, there were still embers burning beneath the ash.

Even the most hopeless of romantics feel the foundation begin to crack by the time they reach 40 if they are still single. If married, their views of love have probably been significantly altered. As well.

Mark was certainly no hopeless romantic. And certainly way less now than before his marriage deteriorated beyond the point of repair. Not even marriage counseling could crack that nut. Or, more accurately, the nut was already cracked beyond repair.

Yet, despite fading faith, there was still a part of him that believed that his magical unicorn was lingering out there.

Somewhere.

And quite likely sharing the same thoughts and doubts as he was.

Holding on to hope wasn’t such a bad thing.

At 37, Mark was still young enough to be considered young. In the eyes of his students, however, he was ancient. And he couldn’t help but feel that way.

The downside to still believing that your special someone is out there at Mark’s age meant dealing with an avalanche of anxiety attached to the realization that even though you believed your soul mate existed out there somewhere, the universe was determined and conspiring to keep you apart at all costs.

And that time was running out.

He couldn’t help but wonder if this was worse than the contrary belief that one’s soul mate never existed to begin with.

When you truly believe that their special one is out there, life becomes an endless scavenger hunt. A game driven by the realization that every outing is rife with the possibility that your unicorn might be waiting around every corner, at every bar, at every café, or in every bookstore, which means leaving no stone unturned, for fear of missing out on the one thing you are searching for more than anything.

Because you are in search of that one person who not only truly gets you…but that you will truly get yourself. The one person who is like mirror reflecting your best self, deflecting all the things you fucking hate. Yet, despite the fact that you have everything in common, there are still several mysteries waiting to be unraveled. And it all seems too good to be true. And you can’t eat. Because your stomach is filled with the constant flutter of butterflies.

A unicorn is also someone that makes you feel compelled to write out long messages on a note pad before you type it out to make sure you get it just right. It’s regretting that you didn’t phrase a message just so. Or, that you left out a line. It’s hearing a song in your car and you’re convinced she’s hearing the same song, even when you know it’s not even possible.

And the world is never more full of color. Even during a dreary Michigan winter.

And then reality sets in. Before you fall out of love. Before the sex drive is gone. Before some one cheats. Before the dream is given up on. Before you feel like strangers, despite all the familiarities and similarities you once shared. When the allure of romance and endless potential becomes mundane, annoying, boring. And all you see are not only the worse parts of that person you were once so obsessed over, but the worst parts of yourself, which are now somehow, deeply and horrifyingly magnified. Once you get to this point, there is no turning back. You either go through the heartbreak of break up, or you both live with the heartbreak of wondering if the unicorn was fool’s gold.

A false flag.

And before you know it, you suddenly find yourself searching for your missing unicorn once again. And it’s doubly sad, because the person you thought was your unicorn is probably thinking the same thing about you. Or, possibly fucking someone behind your back. Or, perhaps, you are on your own private, lonely island, which means they are either oblivious, or they have become too complacent to give a fuck.

Of course, none of it really comes as much of a surprise. We are used to thinking the person who just might be “the one” actually isn’t – no matter how much and intensely you shared the same wavelength. In fact, it is often the ones that come on the most sudden that are often to be most disappointing. Sometimes, life simply gets in the way and despite doing everything in your power to make it work, you end up going separate ways. But we cherish even the failed or false unicorns because if even for a moment – a drunken night, an all nigh chat session, or whatever the case may be, it was fucking beautiful. Like a comet that goes as quickly as it came. Sometimes, a temporary unicorn comes into our life when we most need it.

And sometimes, this means realizing when it’s time to move on.

And evolve.

Coming to the realization that that our true unicorn is probably still out there somewhere.

But then we remember that it is called a unicorn for good reason: it’s not only elusive. It probably doesn’t even exist. Yet, we keep searching anyway. And falling into the same pattern that ultimately leads to disappointment, rejection, resentment, loneliness, desperation…which is more than often the case.

Which is exactly how Mark ended up drunk most nights at his neighborhood dive, notebook in hand, with the aim of putting a dent in the novel that he had been toiling over for 15 years. Spinning in its tracks.

Fifteen fucking years. Longer than his marriage by half. And perhaps even more frustrating and abusive. But yet, it was his first love. And he figured since he had already put so much blood, sweat, and tears into something that never reciprocated (much like his marriage – though he was equally at fault), he would stick with it, till death do him part (unlike the marriage she finally put out of its misery. Because, as she said “You’re too much of a fucking coward to end it.”)

Although his optimism regarding finding his unicorn was quickly fading, he still had full faith in his novel – his elusive Moby Dick. Though he was certain he would never give up on his dream, his biggest fear was that fucking novel would never see the light of day. It was this very fear that motivated him to keep poking away at it. In fact, the more time passed, the harder he worked at it. If only he put this much effort into his marriage. Then again, it was his “stupid” writing dream that played a huge role in dissolution of his marriage. Of course,

She would never understand how much it hurt him that in 10 year of marriage, she never read a goddamn word of what you wrote, nor did she ever ask what he was working on. Nor, get excited when he shared a new idea. She simply didn’t give a shit. And it hurt like hell. Eventually, he got to the point where he stopped sharing things with her. It was also around this time that he reached the beginning of the end.

And it wasn’t like he didn’t take interest in her pursuits. He understood it took two to tango. She just never wanted to dance.

For years, they were two people living under the same roof, but living two separate lives. Of course, not having kids only expedited this existence. Perhaps, if they had kids, they would have fought harder. Or, stayed married for the kids. Then how miserable would they have been? Maybe kids only would have made it worse.

As far as his book was concerned, he knew he ultimately had no control over whether would someone actually publish his book. But he would never stop knocking at doors.

Since the divorce, Mark devoted most of his evenings to his writing. Bourbon was his muse. When he wrote at home, he usually ended up passed out at his computer earlier than he would have preferred. So he started frequenting bars more often – not to pick up women, but so he could stay awake and write. He always wrote best when surrounded by stimulation. He fed off it. Every now and then, an attractive stranger would catch his eye and become his unknowing muse.

Lately, however, his he started to feel like perhaps the time had come to give dating a try, for the first time since he was last single – 15 years ago to be exact. He doubted he would be any better at the game now, than he was then. In fact, he was likely to be worst with rust.

It didn’t help that when it came to the opposite sex, he felt anxiety anytime he had to talk to a cute female – a waitress, cashier, whatever the case may be. So how the fuck was he going to ever start dating? Perhaps he would give a dating app a try. Or, two.    After all, his elusive unicorn could very well be a right swipe away. Narrowing things down could only help!

It was time to get serious about finding a muse, rather than his usual barista or bartender crush he was prone to falling for without their knowledge of his existence. Sometimes, he would fall for a fellow customer, going so far as to project an entire life’s history on to her. Yet, he would never give himself the opportunity to discover if his projection came anywhere close to the truth because he didn’t have the goddam balls to do anything about it. At least it wasn’t all for naught – often, these “one night muses” ended up populating his stories.

Lately, he was frequenting bars fare more coffee than his usual coffee shops. Part of it was the fact that caffeine seemed to be keeping him up at night, more so than in the past. But the truth of the matter was that he was depending on alcohol more and more lately, going as far as to convince himself that drinking was making his writing better. Much like his writing, his Mark’s life lately was one very rough, unending draft. And it was time for some major polishing.

Part of time hope that by frequenting bars – and increasing alcohol consumption – he would somehow find the courage to strike up a conversation and maybe – somehow – get back into the game.

Perhaps some girl will be so fascinated by a guy writing in a bar, she would approach him! It was only natural that if she his true unicorn would be turned on by his writing. Of course, in reality, he was aware of what a pretentious douche bag he probably looked like.

Then again, did he really want to drag another woman into the murky swamp of a writer?

He realized his desire for a muse was a bit selfish on his part. But he sure loved the idea of writing stories secretly just for her. Stories that she inspired. And then she would read them. And then they would have dinner. Watch a movie. Make love. And life would be good. Life could be good. If only he could just get out of his own way.

Of course, it was usually while riding the high of a writing session, combined with ample amounts of bourbon, that he was more convinced than ever that his elusive unicorn was out there.

Somewhere.

But where?

And then…

“Are you writing a book?”

Peering over his shoulder was the ginger angel of his dreams.

“Yes. Trying to, at least.”

Where in the hell did she come from? How had he not noticed her until she appeared? She was exactly the type of he would have typically instantly noticed.

“What’s it about?
“A thriller about a guy who realizes that ‘s an alternative version of himself living the life he always wanted.”

“Oh, wow. That sounds fantastic! String theory stuff, right?”

“Yeah. Exactly.”

“Are you a writer?” he asked.

“Me?” she said with a laugh.

“No. But I am an avid reader. Mind if I sit here?”

“Sure!”

What is happening?

            Surely some sort of prank. He kept waiting for a camera crew to jump out of some dark corner.

Was he dreaming?

This type of shit never happened to him.

Never.

Three hours later, they were still talking.

And drinking.

And sharing an appetizer.

Their conversation was effortless; their mutual interests endless – especially as it pertains to film, music, and literature. And despite everything in common, he realized how many mysteries remained to be explored.

From a physically standpoint, she was just his type. Red head, with a punk edge exterior, but a sweet interior.

And perhaps most importantly, she was so damn curious about his writing! He wasn’t used to this. Why would she give a shit? She hadn’t even read a single word he had written – but that was soon about to change.

“So what made you want to talk to me?” he awkwardly asked.

“Because you seemed so cute, writing away in your little notebook. And it was refreshing to see a guy in a bar who wasn’t there to pick up chicks.”

This. Cannot. Be. Real.

So what next? His lack of confidence was certainly still intact. Because he just assumed that even after this amazing conversation, they would go their separate ways.    Closing time.

He walked her out, an assertive action, aided by the fact that he had no choice since the bar was closing its doors.

Standing out the parking lot, a light snow flurry fell on them, as they awkwardly stood there awaiting an unwritten goodbye. Both seemed unsure as to what to do next, despite both likely wanting the same thing.

And then:

“Want to come back to my place?” she asked.

            No way this was happening.

“Yes,” he said in response to her question. “That would be great.”

With nothing to lose, he followed her back to her apartment just conveniently down the road, listening to “Across the Universe” as the replayed his unexpected evening in his mind.

Nothing seemed forced.

Or, awkward.

Just two people at a bar.

Just as he fantasized over and over again. Just like he had seen in the movies, time again. And now, somehow, it was happening.

But was it really?

It was happening.

And of course, how fitting that what happened next was the best sex of his life.

Surely, it was too soon to assume she was his true unicorn. Right?

“You’ll know it when you see it – or, more specifically feel it.”

And the second he entered her bedroom – moments before he entered her, he had as close to an answer as he could ever expect to get.

Hanging above her bed, was a giant, velvet painting.

Of a beautiful, glorious unicorn.