erasing clouds

Only the Good Die Young

by brian howe

I was embarrassed because I'd been caught listening to Billy Joel. This is not something I often do, but we all indulge secret passions at one time or another, and I am no exception. Even worse was that I tried to cover it up. And it wasn't even some forgotten gem, a lost fragment of the Joel oeuvre that could be considered sublime since no one had ever heard of it. In fact, I believe it was a greatest hits compilation, including "Piano Man" and "The Stranger." My name happens to be Bill, but you shouldn't read too much into that.

I'd completely forgotten I'd been listening to Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, Vol. I on the way to the rock club, until after the show, when my relatively new friend Carla and I were already buckling our seatbelts. We were all sweaty; our ears were ringing, and we basked in the post-show, pre-bar aftergl -- well, middleglow I guess. The dark windshield glimmered furtively in the rain. Carla was in the passenger seat saying something I couldn't hear through my teal foam earplugs, which I proceeded to plop greasily into an empty coffee cup. I remember she wore a navy blue denim jacket with varicolored buttons on the lapels, much mascara and silver glitter. I turned the key in the ignition and the car woke up sputtering, barfing streams of light everywhere and all atremble.

I usually enjoy the moment, right after starting the car, when the CD player resumes its business and fills the air with music, especially when I can't remember or immediately recognize what I'm listening to. Sometimes I'll sit in the driver's seat clutching the ignition with my right hand -- my left white knuckled on the wheel -- and wait for an appropriately anonymous section of whatever's playing before I turn off the car, in the interest of not loosing myself from the song bang in the middle of a good part, and setting up a little sort of wonder pit-stop for myself in the near future. It doesn't always work.

Sometimes I try to prevent myself from realizing what music is playing, delaying the jolt of recognition for as long as possible by avoiding any mental file-rifling that might divulge the identity of the musician I know so well. But something about the texture of the music that had by now been issuing from the speakers for several seconds bothered me; something about its jittery piano and deep-throated... sincere vocals gave me pause. I immediately began to scan through the I-Pod in my head. With dawning horror I realized -- Oh my God it's the freaking Billy Joel CD -- and I stabbed at the Off button. The silence of the ocean floor flooded the car.

You see, I kind of liked Carla. But I shouldn't have tried to hide it -- that I was listening to Billy Joel, I mean. Maybe not the other thing either. Carla and I had only known each other for about a month -- we met through a series of events that has nothing to do with this story. We definitely had a certain spark, and I felt there was potential for something in the future if not for the fact that we were co-workers and were both involved in semi-serious relationships and would probably wind up being too good of friends for either of us to broach the topic of, the possibility of, the inherent logic and arguable necessity of --

Anyway. It would not have been so bad had I not tried to hide it. It's one thing to get caught doing something embarrassing, but nothing is more damning than doing something embarrassing and actually being embarrassed by it. It implies that you actually sort of meant or believed in what you were doing, and that is simply not cool. Had I just smiled rakishly, started belting out the lyrics ironically or made a wisecrack instead of quickly turning off the CD player as if she wouldn't notice... I can't help but wonder what might be today.

We both stared straight ahead, me studiously and her gaze rather searching. The silence was enormous. No cars passed through the gravel lot to make a munching sound. We were almost the last to leave, since we are good scenesters and we stay until the bands are heading to the afterbars.

"What was that?" asked Carla, not unreasonably. Her reflection looked baffled in the windshield, brushed in broad dim strokes on the dark.

"Huh? Nothing," I said, in a tone I hoped would manifest as absently, feigning surprise at her question as if she'd jarred me from a pleasant reverie. I suddenly developed an intense fascination with the spider web of cracks I had put right above the inspection sticker on my windshield. I'd been trying to move large furniture. Running my finger along the bright water trapped in the cracked black glass, I knitted my brows as if to say, These fissures are no longer acceptable. How can I bring my ingenuity to bear on a solution?

"That was Billy Joel," Carla said defiantly.

"No it wasn't." My God, what did I mean?

"Yes it was!" she said in a scandalized tone. "That was 'Only the Good Die Young.'" She was smiling, but in an astonished, kind of affronted way.

Fucking "Only the Good Die Young." It was. It really was. Not exactly "We Didn't Start the Fire" bad, but still, this was bad. My jaw lolled like something with a busted hinge. I feel like maybe my eyes did something one would call goggling.

"Bill?" she said plaintively, clearly taken aback my the sudden disappearance of my usual bravado. I had to think in terms of damage control now. I needed a ripping bon mot, something sophisticated and cutting and weary and dismissive. The ultimate negation.

"No it wasn't."

Oh dear. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, I had opted for a third denial. I could see where this was headed. Like Peter, I was going to get called out.

Carla must have enjoyed the pliant, come-hither resistance of the stereo's knob as she purposefully depressed it with her stiffened finger. The song began right at the titular chorus. Only the good die young, proclaimed Joel, with what seemed to me a smug satisfaction. He would not be denied. I peered intently through the windshield as if trying to discern augers in the confusion of orange streetlights refracting through the irregular rain. The part of the song right after the chorus that sounds like a used car commercial accused me from the air. Carla's gaze burned into my temple like an lemniscate-shaped, white-hot brand. Unequivocally defeated, I turned down the volume to a barely audible level, but let the song continue to play as Carla smirked at the floorboard. We drove off into the weeping night. At last call, she left the bar with some dude wearing earlobe expanders and I went home alone. Although we remained friends, nothing beyond friendship ever developed, and the tenor of our relationship was markedly different from then on. We never spoke of that night again.

Issue 19, January 2003

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