The Loneliness of the Soundtrack Listener
Updated: Jan 6
It’s been a long road, indeed — My Adventures in Underscore, part 13
I sit in the dim pre-dawn light, lacing up my battered blue Nike Cortez. The futon is already folded into sofa position after a short night’s sleep. That single piece of new furniture cost me most of my remaining Marvel comics collection. Reaching into my sweat pockets, I plug the headphones into Discman and hit play. Jogging down the apartment hallway to the exit, I jump ahead to this week’s favorite workout track.
As my feet hit the rough pavement, the muscular ostinato of “Flaming Village” keeps time with my stride. I love running to Jerry Goldsmith action music, and Rambo III is currently in heavy rotation. The complex rhythms keep it interesting, and the brute orchestral force pumps me up. It’s 6:30am on a typical weekday with nothing to do but think about the road ahead. The irregular percussion of “Preparations” reminds me to pick up the pace.
It’s been three months since I moved out and I’ve hardly adjusted. The kids visit every other weekend and a couple of nights in-between, and it’s a joke for the four of us to squeeze into my tiny studio apartment. Got to see if I can work out a different arrangement with their mom, Leslie.
If there’s a theme to my life right now, it’s solitude. I have friends at work, but rarely see them outside of 9 to 5. I long for a romantic relationship but maybe it’s too soon. Someone told me that you need a month recovery for every year of a failed relationship. Fifteen months sounds like a lo-o-ong time before dating again. Maybe that’s just 15 months before I get serious.
I’m listening to music a lot more these days, to fill the gaps. Work is more demanding since I took a promotion to group art director. More responsibility means more money and I need it, because expenses have soared. We’re doing-our-own-divorce according to the best-selling Nolo Press handbook. According to the California guidelines for child support, my wife and kids are entitled to about 80% of my take-home pay. That doesn’t leave much for room and board, much less CDs. So the playlist is on repeat: cue favorites like the melancholy sounds of Ry Cooder (Johnny Handsome).
After a few desperately lonely weekends, I learned to plan ahead to make sure I have someone to meet or something to do, so long as it wasn’t too expensive. This week I’m meeting up with my pal Lainie—my “work wife” who has been a helpful confidant (and secret crush) through this transition. An unfiltered blonde with a big personality, Lainie grew up in Hollywood until the biz literally killed her dad at an early age. She still loves movies and consumes them with the cynical eye that only a survivor can have. Even though she's a little younger than me, her maternal streak comes out whenever we discuss my situation.
Taking our seats at The Alhambra, she digs in. “So what’s new? I see you and Ann lunching a couple times a week. What’s going on there?” It was true, I’d made friends with a single mom who’d recently moved from New York. I had more experience with computers, she was a seasoned pro in design—our skills were complimentary. At that, Lainie would lean into Yenta mode: “So when are you gonna ask her out? I see the way you’re looking at each other.” Really, I wondered, is it THAT obvious? I suddenly felt like a ten-year old, hiding my eye-popping gaze from my parents while Goldie Hawn shimmied on Laugh-In. No, not yet. It’s a little early. “Early-schmerly. Gotta wash that wife right outta your hair.” Fortunately, the lights go down and the show starts.
Dead Again is a blast, and Patrick Doyle’s explosive score makes the hair on my neck stand up—but I leave the theater with a sharp longing. Nothing like an idealized romance onscreen to remind you what’s missing off screen. Over dumplings and kung pao, Lainie encourages me to make a move. She buys my dinner and pinches my cheek on the way home. “You have everything you need, just get a move on.” I’d kind of like to make a move on her, but I also don’t want to mess up our friendship. I can’t imagine a romantic relationship as direct and forthcoming as this one.
The next day is Sunday, October 20, 1991. An atypically warm and sunny morning in the Bay Area, it’s our Indian summer. I’m lazing on the futon, wishing there was a little more information in the booklet about Nelson Riddle’s Symphony for the North when the phone rings. It’s Leslie and she needs my help—James appears to have dislocated his little sister’s arm. I rush to their house and Jessica is still crying after an hour, so I volunteer to take her to the ER. I bring the boys along for the ride. We drive up the hill to St. Mary’s and I try to get a rundown of what happened. “I don’t know,” says James. “We were just playing.” I recall a similar incident 20 years earlier, when I was “just playing” with my younger brother Steve. Swinging him around by one arm until he split the bridge of his nose on a metal armchair. I don’t press for more details.
Miraculously, the ER doc knows just what to do and pops Jessi’s arm back in place. She instantly feels better and we’re back outside within an hour. Putting her on my shoulders, I croon “Under the Sea,” the only song from her beloved Little Mermaid I can mangle. James is visibly relieved and I can tell he’s suffered enough. So has Mike, who doesn’t understand why HE needed to come along in the first place, and has declared “This is BORING” at regular 10-minute intervals. Searching for stimulus, he’s the first to notice the black plume of smoke in the distance. “What’s THAT?!” he asks, and stops us all in our tracks. I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.
After taking the kids home, I return to my stack of old music. As the ominous strains of Howard Shore’s latest fills the air, the phone rings again. It’s Ann, at work. “Hey stranger, sorry to bug you on a weekend. Have you seen the fire?” Of course, I knew now that the Oakland hills were ablaze, and hundreds of folks were being evacuated. Still, I didn’t have much connection with that neighborhood. But she does. “I was at the office doing prepress for next week. Looks like the fire might be spreading to Piedmont, and I’m not sure if I can get home right now. Do you want to grab dinner with me, while I wait it out?”
In minutes I’m improvising a meal of leftover lasagna and salad and prepping for my first adult guest. It doesn’t take long to straighten up the studio—I don’t have much besides my drawing board, futon and card table. When Ann arrives, she’s not her usual bouncy self, even though her son is safe and the fire hasn’t spread west—yet. We hike up the hill in Bernal Heights and look out at the huge black cloud spreading across the bay. In the gathering dusk, it has a frightening, orange glow. Too far away for any detail, but it’s huge. She touches my arm and says, “Let’s go. This isn’t doing me any good.”
Over dinner, I try to keep the mood light and talk shop, and soon we’re onto other topics. We gripe about parenthood, divorce, and isolation. It feels like we can talk about anything. Her grey eyes have lost their usual twinkle, glistening with tears. I ask if she’s okay. Her voice chokes a little, “This is more stressful than I thought it would be.” Her armor drops and I offer a comforting hug. Before long her lips are pressed against mine.
She leaves early the next morning, grateful for the momentary comfort, but eager to get home. I sit on the edge of my futon, lacing up my Nike Cortez, thinking about the past 12 hours. Remembering how I clicked on the CD for a little musical accompaniment, forgetting that Silence of the Lambs was in the player. The choice was not as bad as it sounds, given the tension in the air. Deep, sonorous strings were an interesting counterpoint, really. But Ann did ask, afterwards, “What was that?” Once a nerd, always a nerd.
An odd musical choice wasn’t my only miscalculation. I would try to turn this encounter into something deeper and long lasting, but Ann knew what she wanted—and could sense my neediness. I wasn't ready. She raised her armor and kept me at arms length. We filled some empty weekends together, but after a few months it was over. Back to being a single dad and not-yet-divorced husband.
This morning I’m listening to Siesta by Marcus Miller. The soup of emotions that it stirs seems apropos—the story of someone who wakes up in a terrible state and can’t remember how they got there. That makes two of us. The dreamy, whirling music takes me back to wistful thoughts of romance and love. The throbbing synths wash over Miles Davis’ trumpet, and I feel that awkward tightening in my belly. I round a second lap in the parking lot.
Thup thap. Thup thap.
My eyes tear up in the cold morning air. It is the cold, isn’t it?
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