Five years ago, I had a dark, abject experience in a dinner theater concert venue. I wouldn’t have necessarily written about it or spoken about it ever again. But today is #EssayWednesday, and I feel committed to writing down things as I encounter them. So it surprised me when I re-encountered that bizarre moment in my life, and felt open to telling the story.
This week my friend invited me to a Beach Boys tribute show. He had free tickets, and it was a hip band, comprised of musicians who cut their teeth playing in Nashville bars. It wasn’t like the Pilsbury-soft oldies-circuit guys that look more like used car salesmen than Beach Boys, pomade thick in their hair.
The venue is something like a dinner theater. You’re seated at tables where waitresses come by and bring you pot stickers, flatbreads, and cocktails as you enjoy the music. They host an eclectic variety of acts; upcoming shows include everything from David Crosby to Dishwalla. It’s always a good time, and the last time I was here, my mom died.
It’s not exactly a memory. Memory is abstract, and this, whatever this is, is not an abstraction. It’s more like a piece of shrapnel from when the bomb went off. The week my mom dies, I have tickets to see Denny Laine, the member of Wings that’s not Paul or Linda McCartney. And for unknowable reasons, he plays the entirety of the last Beatles record, Abbey Road, start to finish. It’s a post-ironic amuse-bouche for Beatles fans. Except I’m about to enter a new, deeper level of the world, where nothing is post-ironic anymore.
“Go,” my dad says. “Enjoy yourself. It will do you good to get out of this hospital,” he reassures me.
We didn’t know my mom was going to die. Also, my wife was pregnant, but we didn’t know that, either. But the ICU nurses have stopped making eye contact with us, my wife is complaining about the smell of the flatbreads five tables over making her nauseous, I can’t drink enough to stop feeling, and Denny Laine is leading a rousing singalong to Octopus’s Garden.
Life drills you out. We are born boulders and become caves. We call out to others in the subterranean beneath our skin, hoping someone will answer back. My mom died, I shout. It’s a perverse game of telephone, without the strings and cups, instead with emptiness and echoes bouncing off the rocks and sediment.
But you do find people. We are a vast network, connected by strings and echoes underground, connected by dead parents and dark stories, blind and feeling our way along the cavern walls. We can be healed. We can be filled in with resins. It’s good shit, rigid and durable, a clear plastic finish. It’s only dental work. Bones and teeth. It’s only grief.
And it bores into my fillings as I sit down at the Beach Boys tribute. I need to pull the shrapnel out.
These attractive girls sit down across from my friend and I. They are blonde, they are brunette. They share smokes and secrets. They sip gin. My unmarried friend only thinks he’s going to talk to them. I know I’m going to talk to them. I’m a walking air-pressured tank filled with boiling water.
They’re weirded out by the dinner theater seating arrangement. It’s the shocking intimacy of sitting with complete strangers, like we might share an appetizer of crab dip served with a warm baguette together while we listen to Fun, Fun, Fun.
“This is weird,” the blonde one says.
“It doesn’t have to be,” I say, quickly introducing myself.
It gets a laugh.
We go around the table saying where we’re from, who we’ve seen here, what music we like, and how we ended up at a Beach Boys tribute show with a mostly septuagenarian crowd on a Sunday night. For me, it’s all useless small talk before spelunking into the caverns.
“The last time I was here I saw Denny Laine of Wings,” I say dryly. I drink paint thinner. I chew glass. I bathe myself in bleach. I am so parched. I have been searching this particular cave for years.
“And my mom died.”
It’s kind of a punchline, but more of an excision. They don’t answer back. The echo bounces. They are boulders, young. Still whole, rock-solid. At home, my wife laughs. “You said that?” I’m glad we’re married. I’m weird, and broken, filled in with resins. My dental work is fucking exquisite.