Know this. It can’t be done. Not even if, at 21 and feeling invulnerable you bundle into an old Saab and drive two hours south from Gainesville to Orlando. The car is hers. Your girlfriend’s. You had an old 1975 Volvo but ignored your dad’s warnings. “Put oil in it. Keep a bottle of oil in the back, and every time you fill it up, make sure to put a little oil in. It burns oil, but not a lot. Keep putting in oil and you’ll be fine.” But you never filled it up because you never had that kind of money. So it was always five dollars here and a couple bucks there. Just enough to get you back and forth from campus or out to a club if you couldn’t get a ride.
Eventually, the engine burned up. Not bad, but enough to make driving a little bit scary. You don’t know if your dad sold the thing for scrap or traded it towards something else or gave it away, but one day it was gone, and the two of you never spoke about it. There’s much, actually, the two of you never spoke about, and the tradition remains a strong one, even as your dad turns 74 and you stumble into middle age.
But here we are, talking about middle age and its vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities that stem in no small part, you figure, because your dad never spoke about the Volvo and a lot of other things, and you’ve assumed the same posture: tight lips like a talent, the long silences so deft and beautiful, in their way, it’s like watching a world-class diver poised on the board or some kind of machine tuned to listen in on space’s silences. And we should be talking about 1991. February, maybe, and you and your girlfriend bundling into a car on a cold Gainesville evening and driving two hours south to Orlando to see Debbie Harry play a club called Visage.
You drink on the way. It’s what you do, actually. A lot at this point. You drink and sometimes you do drugs, though the drugs in town are dirtier than they used to be—the ecstasy especially. Now it’s mostly heroin and speed and some other crap epoxied together into tablets. The feeling’s not the same, but at least there’s a feeling. Kind of a don’t-care-enough-to-stay-awake-too-wired-to-sleep kind of feeling, which can make you a little closer to the people around you on the dance floor, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same ecstasy high that came with smiles and hugs and everything else. That high you could do and still go to class in the morning. The new stuff in town wears you down and you wake the next day feeling like you survived some kind of attack. It’s always cloudy when you wake, and the streets seem less trafficked and you ride your bike to get a bagel and orange juice before deciding you’re going to skip class and crawl back into bed and sleep until two.
Debbie’s not playing on a school night, though, so it doesn’t matter. So maybe you and your girlfriend do a couple bumps in the car on the way down, in addition to the beers you’re drinking on the turnpike. And you’re listening to music that’s similar to Blondie, but you wouldn’t listen to Blondie on the way down. You wouldn’t want to ruin it or get tired of it, and for a while you let one of the tapes end and drive along with nothing coming from the speakers, and you take turns making guesses about what the band’ll play. You’ll never tire of this game, and will play it long after the relationship’s over and each of you is just waiting for the other to leave town so you can finally be done with it. You can be done with everything that’s passed between you two without having to be the bad guy. You’d like to think you care too much about her, but really it’s you. You care too much about yourself to break it off. It’s not that you don’t want her feelings hurt, it’s just that you don’t want to be the one that does it.
By the time Debbie Harry takes the stage you can’t even see straight. You’ve done a couple more bumps in the bathroom and there’s some cheap beer on extra special, which you’ve been knocking back one after the other. The guitarist comes on first, and you wonder how old he looks. How tired and sad, and you hope Debbie’s not the same. You hope she’s still the teased blonde hair and slick lips you fell for so hard at 10 and 11 and 12 and over and over through the years constantly tumbling back to that first time you ever saw her and your breath caught in your chest because you never knew a woman could look like that.
The lights flash and music throbs. You can feel your heart behind your eyes, and then Debbie finally takes the stage. She’s so beautiful you sober. Not fully. Not completely, but the world seems to snap into focus, and there she is in the spotlight. She’s there, and the microphone is there and she sings her old hits and some of the new songs you don’t even know and you stand rapt, barely moving, just thinking over and over lookatme,lookatme,lookatme. Of course she never does, and after, the world seems a tired and slightly desperate place, things so far gone between you and your girl she’s able to tease you about it on the way to the car. “What did you think you could do? Seduce her with your mind?”
You stand in the cold air a moment and watch the steam come off people’s heads as they leave the club and file to their cars. Everything between you is over, if only you had the courage to push. “Sort of,” you say. “Yeah.”