Nerve Classics

It Ain’t Me, Babe

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No one has ever filmed me in the shower. For a lot of reasons. Here’s one: I am not the lead singer of The Killers. Never have I starred in a music video where I spit arcs of bathwater and strain my AutoTuned lungs. There’s an epiphany most of us reach at a relatively young age, so here goes: Lord, I am not a rock star.

Believe me, I’ve tried. That three-day beard, that cowboy shirt with roses on the shoulders. Those pipe cleaner jeans. Had them all. And one night — and one night only — I had a groupie.

Here’s what I know about groupie sex: even John Mayer does it. It’s faceless. Demeaning. Autographs scrawled under shirts and panty bouquets onstage. Lars Ulrich complementing his drum solos with handjobs. Groupie sex might be why the preacher Jimmy Lee Swaggart called rock music the “new pornography,” and why Swaggart’s first cousin Jerry Lee Lewis had to stand up when he banged out “Great Balls of Fire.”

At the very least, the rock star should have more tattoos than the groupie.

There too, I flunked.

I was going to college in Oregon when my friend Jordaan emailed, wanting me to arrange a gig. Jordaan’s a Canadian singer-songwriter who sings about horse glue and transsexual housewives. He’s amazing. That spring, he was touring cross-country on a Greyhound bus, playing house shows and coffee shops. So I said sure, let’s do an acoustic show together at my apartment. We’ll invite all my folky friends. It’ll be transcendental and shit.

The night of the show, my landlord called. The neighbor had caught wind, felt concerned about these “guitars.” Rock stars don’t have to deal with eighty-year-old neighbors, but I did. My landlord, who had a soul patch and sympathy, told us we could have the show two doors down, at an unoccupied apartment, so long as we kept the peace and didn’t spill anything.

So we spread the word and the kids came. We sat in a circle, twenty-odd and earnest all, on the carpet of an empty living room lit by a single lamp lugged over from my place. I played first, to warm up the crowd: finger-picked Townes Van Zandt rip-offs of my own composition, very delicate and emotional, oh boy. Between the first and second songs, a girl moved to sit next to me. She smiled. After the last song, she reached over and gave me a high five. She had dreadlocks and sculpted eyebrows. I didn’t know her very well. All I knew was her name, Juniper, and that my friend James had been weakly pining after this name for a long time, like a week.

When the show finished, our after-party consisted of drinking Bud Lights in the empty kitchen. Juniper walked up to me and put her can against her forehead. “I like your songs,” she said. “You remind me of Van Morrison or something. I like the song that goes” — and she sang, a little shy but with a nice rasp — “my life, my life, I’ve danced on a knife.”

“Thanks,” I said. It wasn’t even my line. It was stolen. “Are you hot?” I asked, pointing at the can.

She shrugged. We made a lot of significant eye contact.

“You look hot,” I said.

She rolled her eyes and laughed.

Here’s a partial list of people who have handled that situation better than me: Tommy Lee, Rod Stewart, Ian Gillan, and those fat guys in Uriah Heep.

Jordaan wasn’t faring any better. A few minutes later I saw him looking defeated and I asked what was wrong. “This kid James,” he said. “I was smoking a cigarette on the porch and he asked if we could buttfuck, and I was like whoa, okay, but I’m always on top.”

“What happened?”

“He meant his cigarette. He meant he wanted to light his cigarette on mine.”

“Oh.”

“I think I scared him.”

“I think this girl he likes — she might be into me.”

“Which one?”

“With the dreadlocks.”

“She’s cute. Do it.”

“Really? Is that how it works? I feel stupid.”

He shook his head and dropped his cigarette on the floor. “Think of it,” he said, looking over at Juniper, “as a thank you note.”

I’d done the one-night-stand thing: vodka, etc. But music made me shy. At the time, I’d only played cafes and open mics, in little bands with friends. I was never that asshole on the stairs at the party with the Ovation, mumbling his way through “Blackbird” in hopes of a gnashing, weepy-eyed catharsis fuck. My idea of a good cliché was Morrissey: debonair and romantic, crooning and spooning. But I didn’t have the flair. And Juniper wasn’t the girl for that. Besides, James was crushing on her. He was my friend. Very tall. You know.

What happened, though, was that Jordaan missed his bus. Not on purpose. Not for the sake of my coital destiny. But when your tour is hooked to the alchemy of Greyhound schedules, things are bound to fuck up.

“Just let him stay here,” Juniper said. We had migrated back to my place, where she, Jordaan, my roommates and myself were the only ones left.

“He came all this way,” Juniper went on. “Let him sleep on the couch.”

“I’ll stay up all night,” Jordaan said. “I’ll catch the early bus.”

“You’ll need supplies,” I said.

He nodded. “I feel faint already.”

“Okay,” I said. “Who wants to walk to 7-Eleven with me and buy this guy — what do I buy?”

“Cigarettes,” Juniper said. “He needs cigarettes. Maybe a Snickers bar or something.”

Jordaan held out his arms. “All of this and more.”

So Juniper and I walked through the cold Oregon night to that bastion of romantic mythology: 7-Eleven. I didn’t feel in control. More like on display. Juniper moved a little too far away, then a little too close, like I was a campfire. She asked about my life, laughed at everything, which I didn’t get until I realized I’d been aiming for laughs. Tumbling for the right notes. She asked about particular songs, whom they were about or for. I told her the story of a girl I knew in Portland who had a stalker force his way into her apartment, only to stand on her balcony and cry.

“What was he crying about?” Juniper asked.

“She called the police,” I said. “So she never found out. But you could see the docks from her balcony, right? All the factories by the water. Maybe they looked sad?”

Juniper nodded, sucked in a kind of sigh, and then she grabbed my shirt and I tripped a little. It was dark, the middle of the street. We kissed. 7-Eleven was about a block away.

We bought Jordaan his supplies. Juniper opened his cigarettes as we walked back, put one in my mouth, took it and put it in her mouth, and then she threw it away and we kissed again. Slurpy, urgent kisses, with hands squeezing on hips. I was happy, along for the ride.

When we got back to the apartment, Juniper stole another one of Jordaan’s cigarettes. We could hear him inside, singing and playing, his wail of a tenor like a fire alarm in a cornfield.

Juniper shook her head and twisted one of her dreads. “You guys act like you’re so sad, but you get what you want.”

“What’s that?”

“I mean,” she said, grinning, “if you want something, you get it.”

“Let’s not go inside,” I said. “Let’s go get my lamp.”

And that’s how we ended up back in the empty living room, just the two of us, with the lamp off this time. Right when I pulled out the cord, Juniper pushed me against the wall, and pretty soon we were explicitly disobeying my landlord’s order not to spill things. Shirts first. Then Juniper unhooked my belt, pulled my jeans off, my boxers. I undid her bra. We made good sounds. I stroked her nipples with my thumb. She tugged on my cock. I slid her jeans down and ran my tongue up her thigh. We kissed and bit. I didn’t really like her dreadlocks (they itched; I was afraid I’d sneeze), so I didn’t touch them, but they looked exciting, spread vine-like around her head.

As we kept on, I felt an odd rush of performance anxiety, different than the normal am-I-bucking-at-the-right-speed? kind of thing. Suddenly my tongue in her ear had to impart epic melancholy, every touch had to spring from some kickass urgency. The whole thing started to feel like a guitar solo.

Which signified some awful remove from the act, a lack of respect, a sheen of pure schtick on top of the regular sweat. The sex wasn’t me, but a product of “work,” and I felt devoted but outside of it, watching Juniper’s eyes not for the cues of a lover but the cues of someone being entertained.

Hey, maybe she thought the same thing. Because she definitely wanted the ticket’s worth. First, she started to twist my hair, clumps of it, jostling my head a little. I made a sound against this and she let go, but she wasn’t done. She pulled me tighter on top. Then her nails latched onto my shoulder blades, and she began to scratch. Just a little at first — okay, whatever. But then more and more, until she was making big digs, purposefully, up and down my back.

“Jesus,” I whispered. Unfortunately, because of the whole epic kickass urgency melancholy etc. shit, it sounded like the oh-my-god-keep-going type of “Jesus,” and not what I’d intended, which was more like congratulations-you’ve-hit-bone.

Then she started to sing. Or whisper sing, like the sound of a flute played wrong. She sang “knife knife my life knife dance knife life” perfectly in time with what we were doing.

And of course! It’s what we wanted, right? The image I’d cast: half swagger, half rain dog. Even the knife line (wherever I’d stolen it from) seemed to endorse all this. We’d broadcast such wants from the get-go, endorsed all the relevant clichés, and I had no right in this massive whammy bar of a world to feel that most pedestrian of things: uncomfortable.

I moved off.

“What’s wrong?” she whispered.

Quickly, I decided not to admit anything. Instead, I stared at Juniper and put my finger on her lip. “What about James?” I said.

She shook her head away from me. “He’s a nice guy.”

“Right.”

“Well.” Her body stiffened, she hugged her arms over her breasts. “I didn’t think you’d care about that stuff.”

“He’s my friend,” I said, going for earnest.

“You’re still hard,” she said, parrying for true.

So we ended up compromising and got each other off with our hands. It was awkward and anticlimactic. I didn’t know whether Juniper felt shortchanged, embarrassed, or what. All I knew is that the mythology of the encounter had been irrevocably shot. If this were the new pornography, I’d be fired after the first money shot.

When we finished, she pulled her jeans on and stood up. “Did we take any more cigarettes?” she asked.

I shook my head, sprawled naked on the carpet and looking up at her. “I don’t actually smoke.”

Juniper closed her eyes and smiled thinly. “You don’t actually smoke,” she said. “Oh, yeah.”

She walked into the kitchen and stood there, hand on the screen door. That’s when I saw her tattoo. I hadn’t noticed it during the Great Carpet Scrape. It covered almost her entire back; black ravens ran from below her right shoulder up to the small of her neck. An unkindness of ravens, taking off, lit under the fluorescence of the kitchen and silhouetted against the night beyond the screen door. They made her the mysterious one, the desired. All those ravens reminded me why I’d fingerpicked my emotional bullshit in the first place. There I was, already flunked off a ride I hadn’t honestly felt much about, and these ravens suddenly made me want her, for real, maybe for the first time all night.

But nothing happened. She walked back to the living room, we got dressed and returned to my apartment in silence. Jordaan was asleep on the couch. Juniper tied her dreadlocks in a tall bushel and took one of my windbreakers to walk home in. The next morning, I took Jordaan to the bus depot, and he asked me how it went. Great, I told him. A satisfied customer. Before he got on the bus, he gave me a strong hug. He knew I was lying. We play the same kind of music. Rock stars we ain’t.

Yet, don’t all kinds of music come back to desire? You see and want, carve the urges of your body into tune, trying to call someone in. Once upon a time, all the Killers and Tommy Lees of the world were kids staring at the backs of beautiful girls. Really, the trick isn’t making them turn around. It’s doing what you promise without feeling cheesy. Accepting what you’ve already done: beckoned a stranger out of the intimacy of a dark audience into an even more confident darkness. The songs — they do the work. Your job is just to live up to them. Your job is to prove they’re true.

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.