“This band better be good,” I said to my girlfriend, even though it had been my idea to go to Tribeca in the rain, to see a band she’d never heard of, to drink stale beer at a cramped bar in front of a tiny stage. The wind whipped around us as we pushed against the wall of icy rain pelting us from all directions. The vacuum of Tribeca swept us along, gusts so strong it almost felt like the wind were a strong hand wrapping around our legs, or pushing us with a hard palm pressed firmly against our backs. Backs which were woefully underdressed for this kind of weather, by the way—soaked through and frozen to the bone, miserable already.
I hated going to rock shows, even though it was my job as a music journalist, and even though we got in for free. Even though I was young and supposed to have fun and feel alive and embody that New York lifestyle. I wanted to be home watching medical dramas and eating cheddar popcorn, not being young or having fun or feeling alive. I hated New York City.
My girlfriend was radiant, practically floating on the rain puddling up in the uneven spots in the sidewalk, the storm drains clogged with crap. She loved live shows, crowds, feeling young and alive; she lived for the energy of a sweaty room full of music. She hated cheddar popcorn.
“I’m really excited,” she said, taking my arm in hers.
We turned down a dark street and walked into the club.
We stepped blinking into a narrow entranceway, stunned for a moment by the press of bodies up and down the stairs that led between the stages. The club had three rooms for acts of different sizes, both literally and in figuratively: Lesser-known groups played in an always-too-warm cubby-size basement box which smelled like scalp and was cramped with dusty wooden bleachers; the main stage was for acts of greater numbers who commanded bigger audiences; the upstairs was for acts with potential, burning hot and bright and sweaty and sexy on bills they shared with one opening band, instead of the two or three lining up all the way downstairs.
She smiled and grabbed my hand, leading me upstairs to the promising room, smiling nervous and giddy to be around artists and musicians, her people. I tripped along behind, making side eyes at everyone who passed, feeling self-conscious and ugly and uncool, feeling like an impostor next to this beautiful, vibrant young thing, watching her bobbed hair bounce as she walked. I squeezed her hand, hoping to absorb some of that life, wondering if I could siphon off her energy like drawing gas out of a tank in the parking lot when you yourself have run dry.
We pushed through the swinging double doors into a mostly empty, oddly well-lit room, dust particles swirling in the beams of spotlight, a drummer adjusting the height of his kit. We were unfashionably early, I suddenly realized. This was also my fault, being the nervous type who takes schedules and times too seriously to realize that rock shows never start at the posted time. I’d rushed us out the door, not stopping to think that no self-respecting indie band would be caught dead onstage before the sun had even properly gone down.
Feeling the sudden nakedness of being the first ones in the room, we sat down at the sticky bar and ordered drinks: A pint of some lager or other for my girlfriend, and a bottle of skunky Heineken for me. We stared across the bar at the bottles, their pour spouts still covered in cling wrap from the closing shift the night before, the bartender busy cutting lemons into tiny chunks for quick and easy squirts.
“What time do they go on?” my girlfriend asked. I shrugged and took a swig of beer. It was cool and tasted medicinal. I hated Heineken. Why did I order it?
The band we’d come to see was typical of Brooklyn indie rock in 2003: its name a jumble of nonsense words, its eight members singing in tight folky harmonies, its cellist a beautiful woman with glisteningly perfect hair, its percussionist a tap dancer. This band would release one album to midsize fanfare, play a heavy rotation of shows in Bushwick and the Lower East Side for nine months, then dissolve quietly into the ether as its members become absorbed into other, nearly identical bands and repeat the pattern, a kind of twee circle of life. I don’t remember the band. In fact, I barely remember the show.
After 20 minutes alone at the bar, the lights dimmed to a respectable level and the room started to hum and laugh and jabber; elbows leaned against the bar around us to order beers and carelessly made cocktails, liquid splashed onto the wood to contribute to its gummy surface. I sat at the corner, so I could turn to face both the band and my girlfriend simultaneously; she sat with a fixed happy stare at the stage. The stools around us filled, and the lights went out completely. The band was ready, here we go.
Four songs in and I was, despite myself, utterly charmed by the staccato clicks of the tapping not-drummer: I felt myself smiling and reached up to touch my cheek, as though surprised. I realized I’d let myself get very warm, and I hadn’t been drinking my beer; I cupped my hand around the cool bottle, then pressed my palm against my forehead, relishing that damp relief. I turned to my girlfriend and noticed she hadn’t been drinking her beer, either.
Is everything ok? I mouthed, pointing at her mostly full glass.
She scrunched her nose up and grimaced, the universal symbol for, “I don’t like it.” I pantomimed an offer of a swap, my eyebrows raised to say, “You wanna?” She nodded, and slid her glass to me, happily accepting the known quantity of terrible imported swill I’d been nursing.
I took a sip of her beer and flinched. It did seem a little sharp, like a drop of vinegar left behind in a coffee pot, turning the brew sour. I shrugged and turned back to the band, resigned to finish this drink as though it were some kind of chivalrous act. A hero, rescuing her from something she didn’t like. Don’t worry, I was saying: I’ll take this one for the team. I took another long swig, hoping to get it over with.
The band turned up and started a long, raucous song driven by the fierce, rapid-fire drag of a bow against violin strings; the lead singer jumped in place in front of the microphone, the lights flashed and dazzled.
And suddenly, without any warning, everything collapsed around me—or I collapsed around everything, depending on how you look at it.
I felt my girlfriend’s arm around my shoulder, struggling to prop me up against the bar. She reached one hand up and grabbed my chin, trying to get me to look at her, shaking my head gently as though to kick up the snow in a snow globe. “What’s wrong? What’s going on,” she asked, her voice breaking against the noise of the song.
“I think… wow, I just… home.” I managed.
She let me lean against her as we stumbled down the staircase, the cool of the night air and the rain on my skin like a blessing. We fell into the back of a taxi, and I opened the window wide; I stared out into the city sky with eyes crossed and blurry, the lights blending and splashing even behind my eyelids when I blinked. When we got home, I curled up fetal in bed and blacked out, my head full of glue and my body a million pounds.
The next morning, my girlfriend crept into the doorway of the bathroom while I hunched over the toilet, my face a pale green dappled with sweat. She crouched on her knees and put her hand on my back.
“The guy next to us at the bar,” she said, barely above a whisper. “He kept looking at me. I didn’t even think— I never would have thought. We switched beers, and—” She rubbed my back gently, with perfectly circular strokes. “He got you instead of me.”
I could feel my shoulders sag, my whole body seemed to give way to a wash of sad anger, of helplessness and shame. I nodded. I kept nodding, even as I threw up the last of whatever poison was in me. I suddenly felt like I knew something I’d never known before. I wished it wasn’t ours to know. I wished she would never stop rubbing my back.
As I tried to blow the vomit out of my nose with a wad of toilet paper, I thought, for the very first time, “I live in New York Shitty. This is New York Shitty.” I closed my eyes around the tears, and just kept nodding.