He needed more CDs.
This came as no surprise to me as his thirst for more music was only ever temporarily abated, and during those periods of “abatement,” if you could call them that, he was always drunk with sound. Empty disc cases would litter his room like discarded beer cans, his prone body amongst them, limp but alert to the unceasing influx of audio. At the moment, however, all evidence of his last binge had been carefully picked up, discs clicked back into their appropriate cases, then inserted neatly into alphabetically allotted slots on the wire racks lining his bedroom wall. And he was itching for more.
So I found myself, not for the first time, driving Sam to one of the only remaining music stores in the area – a small Tower Records tucked humbly off to the side of Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa. My silver SUV idled in the late afternoon traffic as the lowering sun’s modest warmth took the edge off of the cool breeze that had wandered in through the open windows. I reached and turned the volume up a notch for the Violent Femmes’ Gone Daddy Gone. Sam turned, snapped out of his reverie, and allowed his hand to sneak slyly across the center console and make its way to my upper thigh, where his fingers began to tap the beat of the song against my blue jeans.
It took only a few steps onto the scuffed black tile of Tower Records for me to sense the rapid shift in Sam’s demeanor. During the short walk from the car we had giggled as our bodies swayed playfully into each other, clasped hands swinging; Sam had stopped me abruptly in the center of the parking lot for a tight hug and a sloppy kiss. I had blushed and reprimanded him for blocking the path of a Volvo that was pulling in nearby, to which he had replied, smiling and turning defiantly toward the oncoming vehicle, “So what?!” Laughing all the while, I had resorted to tugging at his wrist, then more forcibly yanking his arm nearly out of its socket to get him to move his stubborn, scrawny, but surprisingly strong body out of the way.
Now, however, before the glass doors had even shut behind us, he was suddenly distant and focused, eyes narrowing as they scanned the store from wall to wall. His hand fell away from mine and reached up into his long brown hair, mussing it up absentmindedly.
I gazed for a moment up at Sam’s sharp profile. Behind it I imagined a tiny, intricate system of machinery clicking and whirring, collecting all of the visually available information and using it to calculate the optimal location at which to begin browsing. Then his eyes stilled. The cogs and wheels gave a satisfying click, and Sam walked purposefully away without a word. I stood and watched him go with a tinge of sadness, or maybe it was fear, that I could be cut off from him so swiftly, that our closeness could turn so far inside out it seemed inconceivable that it could ever turn completely back.
I pushed the thought out of my mind and trailed along slowly in his wake.
Twenty minutes later, I was milling around noncommittally somewhere between Nirvana and the Pixies, stopping occasionally to flip through jewel cases, taking one out, putting it back the wrong way. Peering around the store for Sam. Discreetly peeking at the album selections of other shoppers and making judgments accordingly.
Music was tricky. Especially when you were dating who I was dating. What I really wanted, though I would never have admitted it, was for him to march over and tell me exactly what to buy. That would have made things so much less complicated. After all, he always knew what I would like, and, as had happened many times before, when I did pick something out for myself, my selection was sure to elicit from him a condescending wince or, best case, an indifferent shrug.
Just one time, I would have liked to surprise him, to impress him with my secretly sophisticated, obscure and somewhat ironic musical taste… only problem was, it didn’t exist. Or, at least, it hadn’t fully matured. (So I told myself).
I finally spotted that familiarly greasy head a few aisles away, bent down intently, obviously still on some other planet. Eh, fuck it, I thought, and, turning, picked up a colorfully quirky-looking album. This is going to be so good.
I knew it wouldn’t be.
When he finally came to find me, walking upright and quickly now, face cleared and open, I was not surprised to notice that he was carrying at least half a dozen albums in the crook of his arm.
“Hey!” He smiled, reappearing unflinchingly as his warm, affectionate self, and put a hand on the small of my back. “What’d you get?”
I showed him what I held in my hand.
The band name read “eels” in all lowercase letters, scrawled in shaky, childish red; in the same hand below, the album title in yellow: “electro-shock blues.” The backdrop was a night sky, fading from bright blue to chalky black, with a smattering of yellow stars and a slice of moon. And flying people, and a dog.
I wanted to put it back immediately with a mumbled excuse but decided, as I considered the flying dog, to stand my ground this time… even though the album was sure to be dreadful, and even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was trying to prove, or to whom I was trying to prove it.
But I would make Sam listen to the Eels the whole way home, and he would hate every second.
“Oh, the Eels? Yeah, they’re alright,” he said unconvincingly, and, already moving on, “Ready to go?”
Before I had put my car in gear, Sam had already torn the plastic off something gruff and discordant by Tom Waits. He made to remove the stickers off the sides.
“Hey, no wait, I wanna listen to mine.”
He paused, his hands froze, uncertain. “What?”
“Yeah, can you open it for me and put it in?” I put the car in reverse and began backing out.
Without looking at him, I could read the expression on his face. He was having an internal struggle. He wore the musical pants in this relationship. He knew what was good and what was bad. The Eels were, well, they weren’t good. But, admittedly, it was my car and I had driven him there as a favor. (Maybe he should sack up and get his license already.)
Resigning himself to defeat, he deflated into a slouch as though his ill-concealed eager anticipation were gushing out of him through every orifice. He put Tom Waits down, and pulled out Electro-Shock Blues.
(Hey, it’s not half bad! For ideal listening, put it on after taking several vodka shots and eat burnt popcorn off the floor. We did.)