I realized later that it wasn’t so much that Jay and I had fallen in love with each other, but rather that we had fallen in love with the same things: speed, motion, driving on the open road toward the vastness of no predetermined destination. No reason to slow down, no need to protect the motor.
Sometimes I traveled with him as Yellowbird rose in popularity. Often not; it was hard to determine the exact nature of our relationship. I was a girlfriend, yes, but not a permanent fixture, probably not the only one if I chose to think about it, which I didn’t. The first European tour was coming up and it was time to fish or cut bait. This particular weekend, though, I had to admit I was along for the perks as we were in Elkhart Lake at Road America for one of the bigger races. The band was playing two nights in nearby Milwaukee, and Jay, a big fan of NASCAR champion, Justin Mayers, was going to be taken around on the road course by Mayers the day before the race, complete with a publicity shoot.
I, too, would have loved to go in Mayers’ car and be taken up to speed, around up over the hill, but it was never suggested. No one wanted a photo of me having a good time. I would stand on the sideline and say, “Oh, Jay, oh, Jay. How exciting!” But it was okay, I reasoned to myself; I was happy for him. He deserved this; he got things done. Jay did everything and loved the doing of it. I loved him because I loved those things as well. Because I did not do them, I loved the person who did. I loved his broad shoulders both literally and figuratively. His world was Road America, mine was Roadside America.
So, on Friday, before the traditional evening parade of cars from the town back to the race track, photos were taken of Jay and Justin at the course, Jay outfitted in a white racing suit and helmet. First, both men outside the car. Then both men in the car, giving the thumbs up. Shaking hands with each other. Shaking hands with sponsors. Justin signing one of Jay’s black Telecasters that would be auctioned off for charity. Finally, after an interminable amount of conferring among individuals with clipboards, and fiddling with the car’s innards, Justin smacked his hands together and said, “Let’s go, man.”
The car fishtailed out of a standing start, then straightened and headed down the track and out of view, a Doppler echo the only clue of the engine’s continuing rpm’s. Then nothing, then you could hear it coming back. Mayers appeared again over the hill, on each lap going faster and faster. I stood on the grass in front of the bleachers, rising up on tiptoes, whooping it up each time the car passed by, my eyes following after it with envy, with dissatisfaction with this whole sideline shebang. Show nothing, I told myself; have some pride. A scene from a book I read as a young girl glittered in my mind : a young girl releases her father’s prized mare out of its paddock and lets it escape. When her father—furious, incredulous—demands an explanation, she refuses to speak. But I knew why she did it. I understood why she let her run free. Sideline girl, sideline doll, thumbs up, faster, faster, each time they came up over the hill. Don’t screw up race car driver, don’t screw up. You don’t screw up, doll.
I returned from Road America suspended in a state of irritation, but did not care to explain why. The band was back in New York rehearsing for the upcoming tour, but I decoupled from the departing train and immersed myself in the affairs of my shelter. One of the cats brought in had been horribly abused, and I was the only one who could comfort the poor thing and get him to eat a little bit. I’d smear the tiniest bit of baby food across his mouth and he’d have to lick it off. It was more than I could explain or bear. The violence inflicted upon this creature, whom we called “Sugar,” and the unfathomable reasons for it stabbed at me every time I sat with him after his surgery. Why haven’t these destructive forces wiped us out by now, I would think. The power of them sweeping across the centuries unabated surely should have done us in by now. How could we still be here and not have turned into some gigantic wasteland, happiness and beauty gone extinct like the great dinosaurs, and—I was afraid in our lifetime—the tigers, the rhinos as well. I sat next to Sugar’s open cage as he lay on his old towel, a creature comfort a few days earlier impossible for him to imagine. He looked at me as if to say, ‘I knew there was love somewhere and here you are.’ It broke my heart. On the one day I couldn’t be there, Sugar died, and the cruelty of this seemingly deliberate mistiming haunted me.
I sat in the tiny courtyard with the garbage cans at the back of the shelter. I sat there for the better part of the next two days, unable to move, unable to go forward. There were two overturned large plastic buckets permanently there, where people came to sit and smoke or cry. It was getting warm, and there was an unmistakable stench of things best not thought about. Late in the afternoon of the second day, Jay appeared in the doorway. He gave me a look, then came over and sat down on the unoccupied bucket, silent, but I knew he was here for me. He lit up a cigarette.
At last I said, “It’s sweet of you to come when I’ve been acting like such a jackass lately.”
“You put me through my paces sometimes, baby.” He drew on his cigarette, then exhaled. “This whole thing—everything—it’s messed up. Funny, you tell yourself it’s not going to be how you think, but still it’s not what . . .”
There was a long silence, both of us thinking our own thoughts.
“Sometimes I want to throw the guitars in the back of the van and just go, you know. Hey, you and me. Just drive, stop at some bar and play for our supper. Good, bad; we’d have stories to tell. We’d come back now and then . . . the road will always call us back, though.” He looked down at the ground, flicking his cigarette. “You up for it? Would you do that? Do that with me?” I turned and looked at him. Maybe I wanted to ride around in a van; I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it with him.
He took the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it on the ground. “Let’s go. What the fuck is wrong with you, sitting out here with this shit.”
So Jay and Yellowbird flew off to Europe for three months while I ended up at the dentist’s office with a nasty abscess in my bottom left molar. My punishment, I suppose, for being a fair-to-middling doll. My penance for Sugar. My sentence: working in New York during the hottest summer on record, trudging up 6th Avenue, running the gauntlet of flyer pushers, root canal throbbing, swelling up the side of my face.
Struggling along through the humidity, I passed by the restaurant that employed the most aggressive stringers and met my match in determination. A man stood there holding an armful of take-out menus, immaculate in his white short-sleeved shirt, dress trousers, and ambition. He was determined I would take his flyer, I was determined I would not. Our eyes met for a second as I turned toward him, but I looked back straight ahead and continued on my way. Not to be dismissed in this manner by a mere girl, the man followed me down the street stabbing the paper take-out menu at me behind my back like a sword, shouting, “You take! You take! You take!” I was concerned he would follow me all the way to the corner, but he finally spun around, swearing loudly to cover his retreat. A triumphant grin flickered across my face, lighting the fuse that exploded into a flash of pain shooting up through my damaged tooth that made me see stars.
Focusing on the pavement just a few feet ahead of me, I wrapped my pain around me like a veil, shrouding myself against further abuse, and in this self-pitying state made my way to my mother’s office. I arrived at my corner victoriously flyerless to be met once again by the girls I knew but did not know. They emerged from their mustard-colored building—today three, no, four of them—in the form of some unbreachable sisterhood, used but seemingly untouched by men, men unseen at least. Truly, I was sick of men. Men who raced cars, men who rode sidekick with men who raced cars, men who introduced you to the world of the NFL, men who insisted you take what they were offering. These seamstresses seemed to belong only to each other, while I belonged to no one; I just walked and walked endlessly up and down the avenue, not looking, not seeing, one foot in front of the other, going on and on until I dropped. These girls had elevated themselves to a higher plane through no visible effort of their own, and the pain in my jaw egged on my anger toward them. They were smug; I disliked them. I hated this city. The weight of the world was pressing down upon me. Why was I forced every day to see these stupid girls? What did they know about anything; what did they know about being at a loss in this world.