1 – Be a girl. Be born sad. Be from a big family, or be an only child. Either way, make sure your parents are distracted and overwhelmed with life. They should hate your moodiness and scoff at any discussion of fresh and freaky ways to wear your hair. Notice that as your parents’ arguments, debt, and beer bottles pile up on the kitchen table at night, the volume on your radio dial rises. Through process of elimination, rock and roll, loud, is the only thing that drowns out the downstairs cacophony. You are twelve. You learn to stay out of the way of what’s going to happen.
2 – Don’t panic when lyrics to songs by Van Halen, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Journey fill the space in your brain previously reserved for algebra problems, figure-skating schedules and your dad’s new phone number. Realize that you can memorize a song after hearing it only three times. Trace a Rush album cover onto the title page of your English composition binder. Ask your mom if you can take guitar lessons. She tells you to dry the dishes, and when you’re done, to take the garbage out. Drag the flimsy bag over the gravel, check to see if any neighbors are around, then sing into the dark suburban sky: She’s just a small-town girl . . . She took the midnight train going anywhere . . . Wonder if Steve Perry wrote that song after he peered behind your homemade curtains into the 3-bdr, 2 bath, crpt, frplc, wtw shag, split-level and watched you, alone at the kitchen table, illuminated by the light over the stove, waiting for the avocado phone to ring.
3 – Get a job at a jeans store in the mall. Go to Faces for a free makeover on your lunch break. In between sips of your Dairy Queen shake, watch as a twenty-one year old’s face is smeared atop your sixteen-year-old features. Notice how that girl in the mirror looks old and young, wary and naive at the very same time. Ask yourself, Where did she come from? Memorize the combination of shading and shine before scrubbing it off in the washroom after shift. Your mom’s picking you up in front of the mall. It’s important that she recognizes you, for now.
4 – Become best friends with Linda G., the assistant manager of the jeans store, who is four years older and has tits and money in spades. Plus a driver’s license. Plus knowledge of radio-station concerts and the names of doormen at the Alexander Tavern and the Riviera by the expressway. Diamonds Lounge is okay, she says, but you go there last, because it’s the easiest to get into. There, let an older man dance with you. Make casual movie conversation. Ask him what he does for a living. When he tells you he’s an accountant, pretend you know what that is. He asks you the same. You say student. What’s your major? You say English. He asks for your number. Give him the wrong one. You mom’s home all the time now, so it’s likely she’d answer. Plus, he’s her age, and that creeps you out. You’re not here for the men; you’re still here for the boys. But they have a hard time getting into these places without the benefit of scaffolded hair and three-inch feather earrings, which brush your collarbones and complement your Heart jersey perfectly.
5 – Be certain that the first time the lead singer from Hustler makes eye contact with you, he’s addressing his song to the sky-high blonde on your left. The CanAm Tavern is dark; it’s an easy mistake to make. Feel Linda nudge you in the ribs the second time he finds your eyes. When she says he’s looking right fucking at you, there’s only the tiniest bit of jealousy in her voice. Because no one has searched you out or locked eyes with you so intently in so long, return the gaze with the kind of intensity you’re sure will make the bar spontaneously combust. Feel joy and fear, like you’ve done something beautifully bad. Then recoil your attention, smack the love off your face, and enjoy the drinks he’s sent to your round, tippy table. Be unaware this is the last time you act coy by accident.
6 – Nod intently when Dale tells you that Hustler is just a starter band. As soon as he gets his shit together and buys a new amp, he’s going to find a better band that will launch him into the stratosphere. Realize that the fact that he has a plan for tomorrow turns you on like nothing else. He puts his tongue in your ear and his hand on your thigh, near your crotch. He tells you he writes his own songs. Maybe one day, he’ll write one about your brown eyes, which now reflect blurry love. Suddenly you have a plan, too. You will be the girl in his songs. That job will require you simply to show up and satisfy his needs. This is easy, because you’ve never really discovered any of your own. But showing up is something you’ve mastered.
7 – When Linda gives you a look that says your fucking ride’s leaving, say goodbye and promise to see him tomorrow. Be careful to keep the word “curfew” out of your new rock vernacular.
8 – When the new doorman questions the veracity of your fake ID, say I’m with the band. Demand that he get Dale; Dale is expecting you. Dale makes it good with the guy, then parts the sea, guiding you to a table by the stage. The drummer’s wife is there. She excuses herself to check with the babysitter, respray her crimped hair and shove cheap coke up her French-Canadian nose. Swear that she and the drummer are brother and sister. Dale kisses you fiercely, gratefully, expertly, draping his skinny tattooed arm around your bare shoulders like an owner. Feel marvelous to belong to something. For the first time in your life, feel proud of yourself and the things you do and the people you know.
9 – Stack your spare cans on Friday morning to accommodate your new lifestyle. Find it difficult to remember the last time you made it to afternoon gym and drama. Realize that being in a classroom Monday to Thursday is like living between concrete brackets. Exist only for Thursday, Friday and Ladies Nites when Dale’s on stage, when you can finally, fully look at him. Imagine how you would fit into his big life, which is sure to get bigger than this tavern. Between sets, when Dale sits with you, he eats up all the oxygen. Find it hard to breathe, which has something to do with the fact that his mouth is constantly smothering yours and the broom closet in the backstage area of the Riv is only big enough to do it standing up. Enjoy the furtive sex, but prefer this open-air affection, when everyone in the room is reminded of who you really are.
10 – Act positive that at some time or another you probably told Dale pretty much exactly how old it is that you were, or maybe that it never really came up. And whose fault is that? Try to remember the last time Dale ever asked you questions about yourself. Fucker doesn’t even know your last name. Fucker never bought you a burger or phoned you at home. True, you told him not to, but fucker only ever reallyexpected you to show up where he was playing, and to sit your sweet ass down on the vinyl chairs to watch. He didn’t know about your strep throat or that your mom’s been crying more than usual. Fucker didn’t even write that song about your eyes, which are now brimming over with Great Lash Ebony and Alice Coopering down your Maybelline cheeks. You want to be in a song, but not this song. The last thing you ever wanted to be was the girl who bawls drunkenly in public washrooms because no one ever writes about her. Unless they’re punk. And that’s not your bag yet.
11- Be fashionably late when Soldier, Stripes and The Look are playing the RockFest bandshell. Know almost everyone there. The drummer’s wife, who is smoking and teetering on her heels in the rain, lets you into the backstage area behind the Port-a-Pottis. Fail to spot Dale, but catch a glimpse of Angelo from Soldier. He sees you too. Feel his big hug as he pulls you into his skinny body and fat bulge. Hear him tell you it’s good to see you, that he’s heard about you and Dale. He tells you Dale’s an asshole and his band’s crap and why don’t you and Linda make yourselves comfortable on the picnic table and watch their show from there. Feel the click of comfort, of belonging to a place with these people, how things seem normal again. See Dale with that redheaded bitch from the Riv, the one who always hovered near the tippy table acting like she was total friends with everyone. Don’t let it bother you. She is older than you by a lot, and Dale’s totally fucking welcome to her.
10 – Don’t give a shit when Angelo ignores you after their set, because the keyboardist doesn’t. It feels like musical sluts the way the two of you wound up side by side on the least crowded picnic table. Have a deep discussion about horoscopes, dogs and divorce, which makes you feel gorgeous about yourself. Watch as Jay Jr. circles your nipple with the mouth of his sweaty Black Label.
11 – Ignore your mother when she starts in on you again as you’re on your way out the fucking door. Run toward the honking until her yelling disappears in the hum of Jay’s I-Roc. At the club, smile as he whisks you past the doorman, past the crowded stage area and into a real greenroom. This is where you keep other bored girls company while boys play. Some girls you know, the rest you don’t really want to. Get high. Watch Jay come backstage after a set you didn’t bother to watch. Be unimpressed with a few songs he wrote, all which seem a bit gay. You knew which words were coming, even before you committed the lyrics to memory. When Jay asks you to shove over on the ratty couch, get up. Someone else’s ex-girlfriend drives you home in a dark-blue van.
12 – Notice a guitar leaning up against the console in the upstairs hallway. It’s small and used and untuned. Ask your mother whom it belongs to. She says you, if you want it. Reply that you don’t know how to play guitar. Try teaching yourself something new for a change, she says. Try making up your own mind about things instead of accommodating these fucking guys who keep pulling up our goddamn driveway but never bother to come to our front fucking door, she says.
13 – Laugh secretly at the guy on the cover of How to Play Guitar in Ten Easy Steps: a gaylord with a red, fuzzy Afro who’s smiling idiotically. Hide the book in your purple satin bag, the one you made in Home Ec for which you received your first A-. Learn a song, sitting cross-legged on the bathroom vanity. It’s Leaving on a Jet Plane. Picture what it must feel like to do that. Realize you can’t, because you’ve never been on an airplane. Consider writing a song about that very real dilemma. When your brother pounds on the bathroom door saying hurry up, that he has to use the bathroom, tell him to fuck off and use the one downstairs, because you’ve got the room right now. Tell him all eyes are on you, and both of them are wide fucking open.
This piece originally ran on October 29th 2003