Old dog on the end of a leash, at the end of his life walks on cold, crack concrete. Walkin slow movin forward gettin toward tomorrow. Winter at the end of a leash, limpin, slippin, sliding down.
Sometimes I feel I’m at the end of a leash at the end of the earth. A bag of regret – walkin without thinkin. Sleepin without dreams. Livin without life.
– Sad People Blues
I love these lyrics – always have. They came at me from the semi-darkness of a makeshift stage carried on the whisky stained vocal cords of a used up blues singer. Or maybe not. Maybe I never heard them at all, or maybe I made them up. Nothing is clear anymore. Nothing but the memories of the nights I spent, bruised and lonely, placated by the blues.
This in part I owe to my father. Who infects me with his love of doo-wop and Brooklyn street corner a cappella. Eventually, this will expand to include music influenced by the juke joints where white musicians liberally borrow an art form belonging to rural African Americans. Music perpetuated by the myth of a poor blues musician named Robert Johnson who meets the devil at the crossroads. I believe I stood at the crossroads too. I believe we all stand at the crossroads sometime in our lives.
It will be the mid 1990’s when I begin my slow, steady immersion into the lifestyle of the music. I spend my nights smoking cigarettes in dark, close rooms with poor ventilation, listening to guitar strings wailing about injustice: a country, a marriage, a love affair gone bad, a big leg woman, a cheated man, a dying child, Saint Gabrielle.
I fill myself with music from local venues: Dan Lynch on Second Avenue, or Scotland Yard in Hoboken. I travel to dumps on the Champs- Elysee, a blues festival in Syracuse, a sophisticated joint with a headliner in Philly. But Chicago; yes, Chicago during the summer of 2003, I sit in a club in the belly of the Blues, drinking and muttering. One more hour, one more song, one more shot of sweet, thick liquid. I could sit here forever sucking notes out of music and chasing them with Jagermister.
But daylight comes. It always does.
The sun slips through a broken blind and shoots beams of light filled with regret into your face. Your brain is on fire, your body hurts, and still the guitar strings rip through your heart. When your head is clear enough to entertain another day, you struggle into a sitting position, the sheets twisted around a hollow torso, your dignity evaporated in a jigger.
A match is struck – an eye narrows in the blaze of the cigarette you saved from a cellophane wrapper, and you take your first draw. Finally, you allow the shuttered morning to unwrap the muted shapes in the room. And without panic you notice a person lying next to you. This has happened before. Sometimes you’re in love, sometimes you’re not – most often you don’t know his name.
A face smashed into a misshapen pillow, distorted and ugly. You’re sure he told you his name was Ray, or Ricky or Andy or Bobby, but the words never reached your ears, carried away instead by the moody movement of the music. His body, their bodies, sometimes lean or pale or loose and rubbery, remind you that life is cheap and company can be found for the price of a bottle. Now all you need as your skin tightens across your skull while you release the smoke from your cigarette draw is to disappear into the loneliness that sent you screaming toward the blues in the first place.
What I didn’t realize during those ten years that I was trying to fill myself up was that I had adopted the perfect soundtrack for my self-destruction. I smoked cigarettes that came in elegant gold boxes, I drank heavily on and off; I dabbled in illegal substances, but most of the time I filled myself up with men. Relationships: one night stands, friends with benefits, platonic bedfellows; they came in every shape and color. I believed that through men I might hide from the emptiness I carried from childhood. But even as one affair fell onto the other, like dominoes, I continued to offer up my dignity over and over again. Leaving me naked, so to speak, another layer of hope scraped from my spirit.
It was a blues club that served as the setting for my final destructive love affair, a love affair that lasted five years.
After my lover walked out of my home, out of my life, I spent countless nights in a drunken rage stalking him by phone at three AM, threatening, cajoling, and whimpering for him. A victim of my man done left me blues, I ranted in conflict as a spurned lover. I wanted him dead, and I wanted him back. I wanted to forgive him while I gouged out his eyes. Destroy him as he had me. And all the blame I believed was his to bear.
I met this man, who has no name anymore, at a bar that featured local blues talent. The club’s entrance decorated by a vintage London phone booth, gave way to steps that led down into a dark womb embracing the patrons. The belly of the room was small, lined at the back wall with a horseshoe bar.
Most nights mediocre musicians played electric keyboards, or plucked at guitar strings while cigarette smoke descended in a grotesque fog. The bartenders served bottles or glasses filled with visions of a better life, each drink closer to reckless attractions that would never make it past dawn. That night all those years ago, wrapped up in cigarettes and tequila, I cared little for anything. I wanted to listen to music.
But when I was buzzing with alcohol, my lover warmed me with a smile, offering me another drink, making me feel exceptional. Within an hour, I invited him into the privacy of my home. The next day I awoke knowing with my eyes closed that if I reached for him he would be there. He moved through my pulse, my breathing quick and shallow. That first night –bodies wrapped around tangled sheets – that first night that lasted five years should have been the beginning of love. But in the end it wasn’t. The music told me over and over again.
Five years later my lover left. He snuck from my bed while I was anesthetized by alcohol. I lay in the filth of self-hatred, mixed with need and hope. Similar to the movie Groundhog Day, but without a lofty script, we had spent the night with the music in the club that went down into the belly – just as we had done over the course of the last five years. As if the courtship had never progressed past careless, empty nights where the volume of the band blocked intimacy, we sat in tall bar stools made of wood and we drank. I was not in the mood to be moved that evening. I didn’t sway or clap or close my eyes as the music filled the room. Instead, I smoked. My lover was tense and edgy like a cat looking for an exit.
When I woke up the next day crowded by his absence and filled with fury, my life began its final plunge into chaos. I do not intend to go on about the minutia of a difficult, one-sided relationship, nor do I want to; I prefer not to defend why I allowed myself to remain with a man who was incapable of respect. You will find both these stories in lyrics of songs with titles like, “Saint Gabrielle,” “Fine and Mellow,” “Little Girl Blue,” Summertime,” “Cry Baby,” “One Way Out,” Whipping Post, “Stormy Monday,” and so on.
No, I prefer to skip forward to the days that followed his departure – the days when I fought with the devil at the crossroads -the days when blue was more than a music genre and meaner than a prison color. You see, blue people cannot breath. And if you cannot breath, you cannot live. You wake each day with a hole in your chest aware that you are alone, abandoned even by yourself. Your heart begins to skip from beat to beat, slamming itself against the rib cage like a prisoner. Your ears pound as blood rages through your veins carrying sorrow from skull to feet.
This is how each day began back then – through murky hangovers, and bitter dreams. Stumbling out of bed, sobbing, weak from lack of self-respect. I obliterate myself surrounded by the music of wrecked lives: Billie’s world, Janis’s world, my world.
I begin to self –destruct. The end of my relationship will coincide with the decline of the company I started four years prior, that I built with my life savings. It may be the hyper vigilance needed to sustain a business on life support that keeps me alive. I don’t know. Or it could be the music, because all during that time, I continue to find my way back to the club with the red English phone booth.
Back to the belly with the oak bar, back to the shot glass filled with relief. Perhaps it is the soothing taste of Jagermister. Thick, sweet and reminiscent of root beer, it is like an old fashion elixir. A medication sold by peddlers now called bartenders. I sit at the bar in a tall stool that swivels and share a drink with the barmaid while people congregate. I know the regular customers: I am in familiar company. I never lack for that. But I still have a hole in my chest. In denial or enraged, I slam through the evening until I hit a wall.
The following mornings are inescapable. The medicine wears off, my self-respect is in chaos, and dry tears stiffen my face. My lungs sting from tar and nicotine clouds. My room is silent; the music dissolves into daylight, the sun reminds me how incomplete I am. How everything I have is slipping away, that I need help. But ignore it. I wash away the previous night with a shower and return to my silent work studio.
Once there I sit or pace, waiting to hear if the partnership succeeds. The building management makes a daily stop looking for back rent and threatening eviction, the phone is disconnected – reconnected by a close friend’s emergency payment. The day moves in slow motion as anxiety grates against my stomach lining and I begin to believe I can live like this, day in, day out business as usual. I push the fear and pain away until it slams against the back of my brain.
I must be losing my mind.
I have not been at peace for a very long time. Later, waiting for the clock to find its way closer to nine-thirty in the evening, adrenalin builds in my body as the thought of the club and the music and the men shoot through me like cocaine, and with it a rush of relief. I choose to suffocate my feelings with music, booze, and fleeting acquaintances.
What surprises me most, in retrospect, is that I manage to function within the dysfunction. I keep my routine. I get up; I walk to my studio eyes shielded against a sun that is raging with brightness. I call buyers, create bits and pieces of inspiration, organize files and determine who will get paid – if funds are available. I have come to see the little fading design studio as a sanctuary from my failing spirit, my clean haven full of lovely little things.
French ribbons in soft colors, printed silk chiffon fluttering in the wind, embroideries sewn under hoops and placed on top of appliques made of delicate gold lace. Days slip farther and farther away from annihilation. That doesn’t make life okay – just manageable. Still I keep making ugly choices. Still I sit up too late on wooden barstools that swivel making friends with the friendless. Under the influence of despair hiding behind twenty lost pounds and an imaginary sense of pride.
I wish I could say my closest friends gathered around and kept me safe. An intervention of love, a safety net against loneliness, but that did not happen. Instead, I intervened myself in an unconventional way.
Friday night came and like a caged rat, I paced my tiny walkthrough apartment. Where would I go? What would I do? The music did not play on Friday nights. A glass of wine, a boost of confidence and I became a goddess, unprotected by the notes, and yet I proceeded without hesitation and headed to the pub without music.
Immediately I found a chair next to an awkward man. Someone I cared little to talk with – but I knew would speak to me anyway. In his quaint English accent, I allowed him to share my space. When the night was over, somewhere inside my shattered vision, I allowed him to walk me home. I thanked him and turned my back toward home.
How unlike the men I filled my hollow days and evenings with. The drug addicted theater artist, a graphic designer who hoarded newspapers and lived in destructive debt, the cocaine Guido from Besonhurst who tried once to beat me – all men chosen for their lack of character. And finally the lover who left in the middle of the night – the cruel man who disliked woman, but who I believed loved me anyway-– these men mesmerized me. Men who’s bar side sexual banter held little respect – but I transformed into genuine interest. Men whose energy sapped my hope and optimism – and yet I chose each and every one.
All except my husband. With him, it was not a choice as much as a battle. There was no epiphany or harps – no rush of endorphins. I struggled to find a way to love a man who believed in love in its simplest form. I complained of his awkwardness, his nerdiness, his painfully thin frame. And yet I said little of his generosity, his admiration, his sense of humor, his commitment.
Then a friend brought to my attention that everything I disliked about this English man was based solely on physical and emotional desire. The same desire that I used to tear myself down. And so I was left with a choice. Choose love through a different lens, or choose fear. Try living with respect. Leave the blues in the world without air – one day at a time.
That is how we wake up past our addictions. Day after day we get up and shake off the need to make someone love us who never considered it part of the package to begin with. Day after day my lover faded from my desire. Day after day my English boyfriend would hold up a mirror of his own creation and force me to see a reflection based on his love: whole, kind, happy. The more I saw, the more I believed. The more I had faith that it might be possible to love him back.
One year later I married him, despite his hopeless, baggy green sweater, despite the fact he refused to eat on our first date. The very next day an expensive bottle of wine showed up in my lobby. I battled back in forth with myself over the intention of the gift – psycho or nice guy, psycho or nice guy. Nice guy won. I took a chance and sixteen months later gave birth to our daughter.
The combined love of my husband and the act of creation I had brought into the world as a pink, healthy newborn girl would be the catalyst to discovering a mental illness, an illness that is both debilitating and at times inspiring – an illness I am not ready to put down in words except to point out the irony of how it came to reveal itself to me during the most fulfilling part of my life, and yet went undetected during the days of turmoil.
I could not see my sickness through the blanket of one -night stands, alcohol and music. With very little kicking and screaming I accepted my diagnosis and began to heal through forgiveness and medication. But every day has the potential of becoming a blue day. That is part of my life. It is what pushes me toward creation, writing, and costume design.
But it no longer pushes me toward the blues.
And no matter how nostalgic I feel when I hear this American art form I no longer find myself inside the belly of a blues club. That is not to say that I wouldn’t like to listen once more to the wailing guitar, and melancholy verses of a music I once loved. It’s just that I no longer need to find companionship in a world of musical despair. Swaying, eyes closed, thumping bar, existing in a musical moment of anguish.
Six months after I met my husband I entered into a partnership with Chinese manufacturers. The deal was such that I would retain forty-nine percent of a company I spent six years building. Two months after my daughter was born, my partners shut the company down for good. I did not cry. I packed up the joy of my lovely creations and put them away so that I could concentrate on the beautiful perfection that was my daughter.
I quit smoking as one would hope during my pregnancy, and lost the taste for cigarettes completely. I miss smoking from time to time if only for the two-minute break. I no longer search for clubs that play the blues. However, recently on a family cruise, I was delighted to find a blues club on board. My husband and I sat and listened to the talented music of The Sam Allen Blues Band. The guitar sighed and wailed as the musician poured life through its strings. I felt the music, I felt the grief and then I felt the letting go. I’d had enough. When twenty minutes passed, we left the club without ordering a drink.
Music is expressed by each of us in our own way. We download it and walk around plugged in. Our play list is a diary distinct from anyone else’s – unwritten secrets hidden in music. I chose the Blues as my companion. It served me in its capacity to transcend time. To walk into a blues bar is to simultaneously walk into the past and present. And so I was able to lose myself. Today the blues stays inside my memory wrapped in a peculiar layer of nostalgia, moving me as only music can. And despite the wish I’d been kinder to myself, the memories have softened from vibrant mania to gentle notes, allowing me to cherish the music that was once the soundtrack of my grief.
Lisa Roth-Gulvin is an English literature honors undergraduate with an emphasis in writing. Her short story “The Finger: was published in Paths, New Jersey City Literary Journal in 2011, followed by “Landscape” published in Literary Mama.com in February 2014. Her story, “The Emptying Out” is available in the Anthology Three Minus Zero through She Writes Press. Her most current work, “Gifts” can be found on QuailBellemagazine.com.. You can follow her blog at lisarothgulvin.wordpress.com.