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it’s nice to have a friend

Laura Chicago :)

“Can I sit with ya’ll?”

I ask the two men on the right side. I’ve walked just a few short rows up the Southwest plane headed out of New Orleans, but this is where I’m parking it. These guys both look like they’ve showered in the past 24 hours.

“Yes.”

They say almost in unison and stand up.

The one closest to the window is an older gentleman, a grandfather I later learn, who just got back from a family cruise.

“What’s your name,” I say politely to the man on the other side of me once I’m settled in.

“Brett.”

He has a manicured beard and a watch with a large digital screen for a face.

“I’m Laura. Where are you from?”

“Denver.”

My eyes light up in a way I’m sure his watch does at night.

“I love Denver! That’s where I want to end up!”

He smiles. He’s 43, was a baseball pitcher in college, and does something with computer software now. He’s divorced—has been for six years—and has a thirteen-year-old daughter. He moved to the New Orleans area to be near her.

“That’s really cool,” I say, thinking of my own childhood. “I’m really glad you did that.”

He’s flying to Chicago to…

“I’m visiting my brother. He’s working and I’m going to meet up with him later tonight.”

“Oh, cool. I’m flying into Chicago, then taking the train to South Bend, Indiana tonight. My brother’s picking me up when he gets off work later.”

He pauses, then looks at me. 

“I don’t mean to sound creepy or anything,” he says, “but do you want to hang out today in Chicago?”

Our plane gets in at 9 a.m. at Midway. My train doesn’t leave until 5 something that night. I had planned on adventuring by myself today. And to be honest, this man is not usually the type I go for. He’s too…

“I do CrossFit,” he’s confided to me earlier. “I just don’t like to tell people because they think it’s a cult.”

And our conversation; it isn’t exactly riveting. It’s more polite than anything.

But his watch looks cool—the big screen reminds me of a large digital compass—and I like the way his shoulders feel next to me on the plane. They’re so big they almost sit on mine the entire trip over, in a rather comforting way. And something tells me to say yes, so I…

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s hang out.”

_______________________________________________________

We land at Midway airport and take the train into downtown Chicago. I have to go to traffic court to plead my case for a parking ticket I got back in June—“I am so sorry,” I tell him. “It’s so embarrassing; you don’t have to come if you don’t want—we can always meet up after.”

He wants to come.

But when we get off at our train stop, I spot a large church.

“Is it okay if we go in?”

“Sure,” he says.

Ever since I spent a summer in New York City and stumbled into St. Patrick’s Cathedral early one morning, to me, there’s nothing quite as calming as sitting in an empty church as a busy city whizzes by.

We walk inside.

The church ceilings steal my breath away. They’re monstrous and made of wood, and whenever I look up, I get that feeling you get when you’re at the ocean and the breeze hits your face just right.

Neither one of us say a word as we head toward the front of the mostly vacant church and slide into a pew. Wedding music plays from the large organ behind us—practicing for the weekend most likely.

And we simply sit there in silence, his shoulders near mine. For hours or minutes; I’m not sure. It’s just so peaceful.

god, i wanna put my head on his shoulder. can i put my head his shoulder? should i ask him if i can put my head on his shoulder?

Fuck it. 

I put my head on his shoulder, and with it brings the fresh scent of his soap. 

He doesn’t say a word or object. Just continues to sit there calmly with his hands in his lap.

In that moment, I don’t ever want to leave this place or him and this feeling that I have with sitting beside him.

But we gotta go.

“You ready?”

I have a court date with the city of Chicago.

He smiles and nods.

We roll up downtown Chicago with our luggage in tow, and head to the building on Superior Street that handles parking tickets. I plead my case to the judge with the glasses, and manage to get $60 knocked off my ticket.

“That was kind of impressive,” he says.

“Ha! Hardly!” I smirk. “Okay! You ready for this?”

I’ve lived in South Bend, Indiana for nearly three months now, and have wasted no time in getting up to Chicago any chance I can.

There’s some place I want to show him…

_______________________________________________________

in chicago, there’s a beach near navy pier. there’s a park overlooking the city, too, but the beach is the thing that stole my heart from the moment i saw it. there’s sand volleyball games going on. lifeguards in row boats. a little shack where you can rent kayaks. it’s like a scene that was stolen straight out of carolina and plopped in the middle of downtown chicago.

we roll our luggage across the beach and find a spot to set-up camp. i pull shorts out of my suitcase and slid them on under my long, white skirt—i’m a swimmer; I can change anywhere. i then take off my skirt and lay it on the beach for us to sit on.

“there we go!”

and then i run to put my feet into lake michigan.

“dude.”

i look back at him.

“do you want to go swimming? i have my suit in my bag.”

he watches our luggage while i go change in the beach restrooms, and then i watch our stuff while he changes. i try not to stare at his arms and chest.

we spread out on my picnic blanket skirt and take out the lunch we bought at whole foods. 

he starts to eat, but i just can’t. the water is calling.

“i’ll be right back.”

i run out into lake michigan.

he comes in after me.

“can i try to knock you down,” i ask.

“sure,

i try. he’s got 100 pounds and four inches on my six-foot frame; pushing him with all my weight in the water does nothing.

he laughs.

“this just makes me want to pick you up.”

he does. and then puts me down as my arms stay around his neck.

“i know you live like a million miles away,” he says, “but i wanna see you again before i go.”

i laugh and lean away.

“what,” he leans towards me. “just say it.”

too many reasons and they all flash in my head as i try to figure out how to form them into words.

his daughter.

he’s moved away from denver.

i’m trying to move out there.

and he’s here to visit his brother. i can’t take over that trip. 

but mostly, our worlds and our energies are different ones. he’s an athlete, through and through. and i’m an artist and a wordsmith. whether i like to admit it or not, we’re different.

“i can’t.”

“okay,” he says.

“someone this past weekend told me about a landmark relationship,” i start.

“you know, like when you’re driving to l.a. and you see mount rushmore, and maybe you wave to it, or maybe even get out for an hour or two, but you eventually have to keep going. because you still have to get to l.a.”

“okay.”

he says.

“ill be your mount rushmoore,” i say.

our mouths are terribly close to each other.

“okay,” he says.

“okay,” i say.

and i look at his brown eyes and let my lips fall against his. i pull away after a second or two.

“what’s wrong,” he asks.

“nothing,” I say with my eyes closed looking off to the side. “i just can’t think straight when I’m near you.”

he smiles.

_______________________________________________________

we spend the rest of the afternoon at the beach and me unsuccessfully dunking him in the water.

“could you just go under the water once for me?

he obliges and i call it a success.

“oh! and i want to show you the park.”

i throw on my george dickel t-shirt and jean shorts over my bikini and we head to the park overlooking the city scape of chicago.

the sky scrapers jar into the sky with the beach we were just at in the foreground.

“is this real,” he asks as we sit on a bench, wrapped around each other, mouths meeting when people aren’t passing by.

i find myself asking the same thing.

god, i don’t want to–

“i gotta go,” i say.

he nods.

we gather our luggage and make our way towards michigan avenue.

“well, i head that way,” he gestures to the right. his brother lives a few blocks up.

i nod and throw my arms around his neck.

the 5 o’clock chicago crowd pours past us: black suits and speed walkers and leather briefcases, and we stand in the middle of it all. my wet t-shirt and damp hair hang from my frame, and my arms cling to his shoulders.

“i don’t want to say goodbye,”  he says, “it’s too sad. I’ll just say, i’ll see you later.”

and with that, he crosses the street and i continue up michigan avenue.

without his last name. without his number and he without mine.

and i turn off michigan avenue and i catch my train.

_________________________________________________

the days disappear between the colorado man and myself. 

the skirt we sat on at the beach gets washed. i breathe it in before i wash it, taking in mostly the scent of myself, but i think i smell a hint of his soap somewhere.

the pink water bottle i brought to the beach, i put to my lips over the next few days. sand slips through, taking me back to him.

weeks go by.

it’s september now and it’s bedtime for my five-year-old nephew. he’s picked a book about a girl with a crayon who goes on a journey.

except there are no words, just pictures, so i narrate as i turn the pages.

“oh wow…look at that…she’s drawing a boat…”

eventually, the girl in the story meets a boy with a different colored crayon. and they ride off on a bicycle they draw together.

“she went on a journey and she found a friend,” i say as i close the book.

“just like you,” my nephew says to me.

i’m puzzled.

“when you were in chicago. you made a friend,” he continues.

my heart stops. and a smile spreads up my face that i can’t push down for anything.

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Fix a heart. Catch a fish. Whichever comes first.

Laura Roberts @ladybirdlake 28

Photo by the incredibly talented Arius Holifield

John found me when I was in a bad spot in my life.   

New Year’s Eve 2016 to be exact.

A boy I couldn’t have been more wrong for and who couldn’t have been more wrong for me have just ended something. The same something we already ended three months before that.

Either way, my heart and my hopes are mashed-up potatoes at the bottom of a blender bowl.

I have an assignment though. With a publication to shoot at the Opry on New Year’s Eve. Kacey Musgraves is playing. And a man named John Prine.

Kacey takes to the Opry stage first. She’s dazzling as always. Beautiful and newly engaged. My heart sinks a little lower thinking about my own current love life.

And then out comes a short, little old man. He’s funny-looking, and looks out at the crowd like they’re funny-looking, too.

He has kind eyes.

He and his band start to play some songs, and crouched down by the side of the stage, I begin to photograph him. I don’t really know his songs, but I like them when I hear them.

And I like him.

And then he starts into a song called “Lake Marie”:

We were standing                                                                                                                    Standing by peaceful waters

He sings about being up in the northern part of the states. Or maybe it’s in Canada. He sings about hopefully fixing his marriage or catching a fish. Whichever comes first.

The way he sings the story makes me smile.

_______________________________________________________

It’s the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018.

I’m back in Austin now. I no longer photograph. Or write much either. I tell people it’s because I need a break from it—and I do. But the other part of the truth is I don’t want to create because my heart’s broken. And the part of me that used to want to create is still sewn to the heart that broke mine.

So, instead, I work a number of odd jobs, one of which is at a music venue.

A music venue where Willie Nelson will be playing on New Year’s Eve. As I’m headed home to get ready for the evening, an Audi going five miles an hour rear-ends my Honda.

I sigh.

We both pull over to the local Longhorn Steakhouse parking lot off the frontage road. And a dark-haired, dark-eyed man in cowboy boots emerges from the car.

He’s beautiful.

I stammer for my words, and do vinyasa flows next to my vehicle—my back hurts just the slightest—as we file with our insurances.

“I’m sorry we had to meet under such circumstances,” he says in a low voice.

I swallow. I can’t think straight when he looks at me.

We exchange information, and the next day he reaches out to see if my back is okay.

It is.

And then he asks if I’m doing anything next Thursday.

We grab ramen at a fancy place on the East side, and he talks about the the way a steak’s flavor can change with the pairing of the right cabernet. I nod. Most of my meals consist of peanut butter Cliff bars from my backpack.

“Do you wanna go dance?”

We head over to the bar I used to frequent when I first lived in Austin: The White Horse. It’s a bar where hipsters with tight jeans two-step to country music. There’s a stage in the corner with red carpets on the ground and a well-lit popcorn machine at the front door. Outside there’s a patio and old piano you can play if you don’t mind pushing hard on the keys.

I don’t mind.

“I haven’t been here since I used to live in Austin the first time I moved here,” I say, leaning towards his ear as I talk over the band. “I love to dance. I used to do ballet when I was young—ten years of it.”

“I wondered that when I first saw you,” his eyes look straight into mine, unraveling me in a way. “My mom was a ballerina.”

We spend the night two-steppin’, and I grin like a five-year-old every time I’m twirled in a circle. We walk to downtown Austin after that—my idea. It’s freezing cold outside, but there’s just this—

“Why are we running,” he shouts to me as we get to the lake’s edge.

“Because!”

There’s this spot down by the water I want him to see.

We talk about our different losses in life. And the early 2000’s. And failed attempts at love.

“I guess the only way you get to know someone is to get to know someone,” I say to him softly as we make our way back to where my rental car is parked.

I get into my car.

He gets into his.

The dark-eyed man and I don’t last, but I do find myself coming back to The White Horse a few times a month now to take things in. Sometimes I bring my camera to photograph the couples twirling each other on the floor, but sometimes I just bring myself. So I can be one of those being twirled on the dance floor.

One day, while riding in my car on the East side, I hear a familiar, steady voice singing words from a scratchy Texas radio station. It hits me in the ribcage. It’s John:

i’d like to stay but i might have to go                                                                                                to start over again                                                                                                                                  i might go down to texas                                                                                                                    or go to somewhere that i’ve never been

and get up in the morning                                                                                                               and go out at night and i won’t have to go home                                                                        get used to being alone                                                                                                               change the words to this song

and start singing again

(“clay pigeons”, written by blaze foley)

_______________________________________________________

It’s new year’s eve 2019, leading into the new decade. I’m at the White Horse by myself this year. I dance with many men—that’s just how they do it down here in Texas—but kiss no one at midnight, and leave by myself soon after. Our giant hug of a music festival is happening in March, and I’ll be writing an article for their magazine. And I do write it, and my editor likes it. But then the virus happens. And everything shuts us down.

I keep writing though. This time, it’s contract writing for a company, but it’s still writing. And I’m starting to photograph critters on the runs that I go on every day at  Barton Springs.

And then I see the headline.

“Mom!”

I’m on the phone choking on my words to my mother in Nashville.

“What’s wrong?”

“John Prine is sick. Can you please pray for John Prine?”

I hang up and call my dad.

“Dad.”

“What’s wrong?”

“John Prine is sick, dad. Can you please pray for John Prine?”

Never in my 34 years have I ever called up one, let alone both of my parents to pray for anything. But I know they’re both religious, and if anyone’s got a shot in getting a word in to God, it’s gotta be them.

I sit on some park bleachers that night and talk and cry on the phone to an old friend in Nashville. When we finally say our goodbyes, I head to my bed and lay huddled in a fetal position. Praying over and over and over again out loud like no way I’ve ever prayed for someone I’ve never actually met face-to-face.

“Please, God. Please, God. Please don’t take John Prine. Don’t take him yet. He still has more songs in him. Please. We need his songs.”

I take a breath before I fall asleep, and don’t actually say it out loud.

I need his songs.

_______________________________________________________

it’s a few weeks after new year’s eve 2016.

i’ll be in washington, d.c. to potentially cover inauguration and the women’s march.

there’s a photo publication headquartered in d.c. that is the most respected photo publication in the entire world.

i’d like to shoot for them someday.

so i send a colder than iceland, long-shot of an email to the director of photography—who I don’t know and doesn’t know me.

hi ______!

i am a freelance photographer out of nashville. I’ll be in d.c. next week for inauguration, and would very much like to stop by your offices to say hello if you’d be up for it.

i pause. because I don’t want to sound inauthentic.

but there’s something that just keeps ringing true when I stare at her work, and so, i type it:

i’ve also looked at some of your images as well–really beautiful pieces of time that you capture; your…photos remind me of a john prine song called “lake marie.”

i hit send and head to bed. i don’t expect to hear back from her.

but the following day, there’s a message in my box:

thank you for the kind note

next week

is a short one for us as we are closed on monday and friday so I think it will be quite crammed

but let me check my calendar

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Turtles All the Way Down: A Sturgill Simpson concert review

turtle (1 of 1)

“It’s good to see you guys,” Sturgill’s pale face turns towards the mic. His patchy mustache scans the crowd. “I never leave the fucking house.”

The mouths near the front of the stage roar up. The fists on the staircases leading down to the stage hit the air. The barstools lining the top floor of the venue lean in, fingers slapping against each other.

“I keep saying this and it’s true…” continues the voice.

The voice that sold out Third and Lindsley this evening.

And tomorrow evening.

And in the last three months, has napped a Grammy nod, an Atlantic Records contract and an opening slot for a Willie Nelson show at Austin City Limits’ Moody Theatre.

That voice.

Isn’t taking any credit. 

For anything. 

“You guys…”

The voice hovers over the crowd.

“[You guys]…did this, man.”

The Voice

Trying to put a finger on Simpson’s singing chops is a bit like trying to hammer nails into the Cumberland River.

The country singer can croon Bing Crosby into a Christmas tree ornament.

Other times, Simpson sounds like a garden hose getting run over by a lawn mower—circa Dwight Yokam in “One Thousand Miles From Nowhere.”

But the focal point of Simpson’s voice is its quicksand quality—the ability to be both steady and shaky at the same time. Think Elvis. Think “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” Think you’re damn right I’m going there.  

“Everybody on the bus got sick,” the blue-collar shirt says to the hungry-eye faces below him. 

The Third and Lindsley evening is the first Simpson has played since canceling four concerts.

Simpson leans against the mic.

“I got damn sick.”

Sturgill and his acoustic start in with Tennessee Waltz chords, long and slow against the sound hole:

If you need a friend
Don’t look to a stranger

You know in the end

I’ll always be there

The tune is the almost unrecognizable “The Promise”, an eighties pop number made popular by the band When in Rome. Sturgill’s Kentucky mountain vocals hack up every single pop ounce the lyrics might have left and spew out raw, Kentucky coal:

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be
But if you wait around a while, I’ll make you fall for me
I promise, I promise you I will

A week of damn sick sounds damn good on Sturgill Simpson.

The Guitarist

There’s a longhaired, small-framed figure on stage right. Indiscreet. Wearing all black and fiddling with a cherry red electric guitar.

“Let’s play a little bluegrass,” Simpson spouts from the center of the elevated floor. 

His backing trio—a bearded drummer, a lanky bass player and the six-slinger—start into the bluegrass number as Simpson and his vocal chords sphinx the crowd:

I’m just a poor boy, had to beg, steal, & borrow 
Just a leaf blowing lonesome in the wind 
I’m just a hitchhiker on that old highway of sorrow 
Just a highballing train on that railroad of sin 

And then Simpson and his acoustic strap step stage left.  

And the eclectic guitarist, with his patchy facial hair, steps forward. 

The sound.

That comes from the guitar’s strings is the horsehair of a bow hitting a fiddle. There is a fiddle on that stage. There is a fiddle somewhere on that stage.

At other times, the sound is a pedal steel guitar, straight out of Robert’s on Lower Broadway. Holy balls. Where are they hiding the pedals on the steel guitar?

The remaining sound being flung from the fingers of the pale guitarist is that from a small, dark venue in Texas. What does this guy DO to sound like that? Drink Gary Clark’s sweat?

But there is no fiddle on the stage. No bow. No pedal steel guitar. And no Texas perspiration.

“Laur Joamets,” Simpson gestures, a pleased look on his face.

The one European man smiles, then continues plucking the six threads with his five thin fingers.

The Best Part

You could argue that the best part of a Sturgill Simpson concert is watching the wonder dust collect on onlookers’ pupils.

There’s the Jersey-Shore hulk of a man in the back of the venue, grinning and twisting his 250-pounds of muscle into the bluegrass coat being woven on stage. It sure as hell doesn’t seem like a natural fit on his frame. 

But damn. 

He’s wearing the hell out of it. 

There’s the short-sleeved youth, way up front, resting his temple against a woman with lines in her eyes, as she and he and Simpson croon out all the words to “Turtles All the Way.” 

And then there’s the clump of twenty-something’s, towards the middle. 

“Scott.”

Scott’s eyes glance over towards his buddy.

“RIGHTEOUS.”

So yes. You could argue that the best part of a Sturgill Simpson concert is watching this wonder spell unfold.

But you’d be wrong. 

Because the best part of a Sturgill Simpson concert, is allowing the dust to settle. 

In your own eyes.

“This is my favorite song off the album,” spouts the pale face underneath the dimmed blue lights. Simpson’s mouth opens, as his band plays on:

Woke up today and decided to kill my ego 
It ain’t ever done me no good no how 
Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo 
In them flowers of light far away from the here and now

Oh my God it’s so beautiful 
Everything is a part of me 
It’s so hard looking through all the lies made of wool 
But if you close your eyes it becomes so easy to see

Go ahead.  

You’ll see. 

Third and Lindsley/Nashville, TN/February 2015 

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How to sail

Sailing (1 of 1)
*Name has been changed

He has ink on his right arm. Near the shoulder. Some letters of a college fraternity he’d been in. Kappa Sig or Sigma Nu.

I’d never liked or even been with a man with a tattoo before, but after him I do.

He has blue eyes. They have this way of staring at you. Like no matter what you say, they aren’t going to get discouraged.

“I made reservations at Amerigo’s, just in case.”

I hate restaurants where they have to talk to you like you’re rich.

“Do you want to just get some sandwiches instead,” I ask back. We’re in his white jeep with the top down. “Go to the park?”

“Okay.”

We go by Jason’s Deli. They have free ice cream. I didn’t know they had free ice cream.

“Oww!!”

He’s thrown the football at my hands. I figured he’d go easy on me. Him being a man and in the army and all.

He doesn’t.

Fuck that. I throw the football back at him hard. But my hard is not his hard, and I’m sure what I think is his hard is probably his medium or even medium-soft.

He smiles at me with those goddamn blue eyes.

“You wanna come up?”
The four most worn-out words in the English language fall out of my mouth.

He does.

“We don’t have to…”

He’s putting his boots back on.

“Stay.”

And he does.

He tells me, as we’re lying there in the dark with my white comforter pulled up near our faces, what he’s been doing for the past fourteen months in the desert. Says he wakes up in the middle of the night shaking sometimes. I hope he does tonight so I can feel it in his body; feel that pain and help him somehow.

I tell him about my brother. How I know he’s got all of that in him from his time in, but he won’t talk about it.

We don’t sleep much that night.

“Don’t call me.”

I say it in the morning as I’m headed to work and he’s headed to Ft. Bragg.

And he doesn’t.

I call him a couple days later.

“I was going to call you regardless,” he tells me. I know. But I didn’t want to wait.

“Can I see you before you go to Germany,” he asks.

—————————————————————————————————————-

“You know when you’re no longer here and in his life, I’m still going to be?”

His army buddy with the blonde cropped hair and snarled eyes barks at me.

He’s joking of course. We’re all playing cards and it’s all good fun. But he’s right and I know it.

“I know,” I say surprisingly calm, knowingly. His friend looks just as surprised at my response.

I know I will not win this tug-of-war that is the army.

I send him a postcard when I’m in Germany. It’s a picture of a monument in the country. A warrior of some sort.

You would like it here, I write. I really hope you get to visit sometime.

——————————————————————————————————————

I’m nervous.

I hate the idea of a man paying for me to fly somewhere—I have my own money. But at the same time, it’s the most incredible feeling of free: someone else besides me is taking care of me.

He picks me up from the airport. I throw my arms around his shoulders. He downplays it.

“That was my commanding officer there at the airport.”

I smirk a little inside. I would have given the commanding officer a hug, too. Chatted him up for a good ten minutes. Told him how excited I was to be giving his favorite officer a…

“This is Fayette-nam.”

“I think it’s really nice.”

He looks at me.

“Well, you don’t live here.”

Still, in my mind as we drive by the strip malls and payday advance shops, I can’t help but think how it’s really not that bad of a place. He’s here.

The next day we wake up late and load in his jeep.

“I actually haven’t made it down to the beach since I’ve been here.”

“What?? You live like two hours away; not even!! Holy cows! I can’t believe that. Well! I’m glad I came up so we could go.”

We head towards Wilmington. I make it point to pay for my own Propel water when we stop at a gas station. He’s already paid for my plane ticket. He’s not paying for my water. His eyes look at me when I do this, but he says nothing. He would have paid.

We end up at the beach. Lay there. I beg him to come in the water with me; he laughs and refuses; it’s too cold. It starts lighting. He says we need to go. I beg him to stay—let’s go play in the water. He says no, calmly. We leave.

We’re different, he and I.

Push-an-envelope—any envelope.

Reserved.

Wild-faced-wild-card.

Steady.

But together, we hold a balance that defies any sea-saw I’ve ever been on.

“You know when you’re no longer here and in his life, I’m still going to be?”

His army buddy with the snarled eyes is barking at me.

“I know.”

“Hey Miller*, your girlfriend is getting a little crazy over here.”

His buddy smiles at me.

Later on that evening, it’s just me and him. I’m sitting on the kitchen counter, hands around his neck.

“Your friend called me your girlfriend.”

He smiles at me.

I throw back my head back and laugh and back-teeth grin.

I get on a plane the next day and head back to Nashville.

“I’ll see you soon.”

He’s coming to visit me in Tennessee.

——————————————————————————————————————

“What are we doing?”

I’ve never been one for subtleties with this kind of stuff.

“I don’t know,” he says into the phone.

There’s the slightest pause that I’m not sure is even a pause. He continues.

“I said I didn’t want to get in any kind of serious relationship while I was in.”

“Okay.”

And that’s all I say.

We say goodbye that October night. He in Carolina. Me in Tennessee.

We never see each other again.

Years go by. I’m moving to Texas. I send him an message.

I fell in love with you. I was scared. I’m sorry.

Two years go by. Right before Christmas, I get a reply back:

You have nothing to be sorry about. I’m sorry for how things ended. I’m staying in the army. Moving to Germany.

——————————————————————————————————————

“You have to be able to communicate.”

She’s strong. Sitting across from me at Ft. Campbell.

Her husband is to the left. He’ll be deploying this spring. His third time.

And I sit there and talk to her for the article I’m writing. I hear the strength in her voice. The calmness in her eyes as their two little ones run around by her feet. The steadiness in her being.

And I get in my car and head back to Nashville.

And for the first time, I know.

For nearly six years I’ve wondered. Had many relationships with many men—even fell for a woman once. But his face and his chest and his eyes are the ones that always stay with me when I close mine.

Until now.

Because now I know.

And six years after I’ve said goodbye to a relationship that has continued to haunt every thread of every bit of my insides, with the only conclusion being I hope I stop feeling at some point, I weep uncontrollably as I drive down I-24.

And finally come to peace that I could never have been the person he needed me to be.

——————————————————————————————————————

I did learn from the relationship.

He says that in the message sent before he left for Germany.

Which hits me.

I’d never thought about it that way before.

Makes me wonder, what did I learn from the relationship?

I’ve had years to think about it now, and what’s done is done.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from relationships that are no longer, is that you can never recreate the past. Even if you run into that person again. Even if your paths do cross again. Time and you both have moved on.

But what I did learn from the relationship is that I loved him. And when I realized that I loved him, I was scared of how things would end, so I didn’t want to continue on with the relationship.

I hurt myself more by not trying than if I’d tried.

Love is strange.

To quote the country singer David Nail, “Never quite the same way does it start”, and it’s so true. Love is scary and it’s exciting and it’s lovely and it’s petrifying and it is the best and worst thing that could ever happen to you because at the end of the day, you don’t know how it’s going to end.

But nobody does.

About anything.

When I was little, I’d curl up in my maroon cloth chair by the upstairs window. It overlooked a tree I wondered about climbing out onto. I’d spend hours reading books in that chair: Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. A Wrinkle in Time series.

I loved nothing more than my books and my characters in those books. But sometimes, a few chapters in, I’d get scared. Because my characters started to face danger. I’d get so nervous trying to keep going on with the story, that I couldn’t keep reading. So finally, I’d flip to the back of the book and read the last few pages. Make sure they all made it out okay and were safe.
There was always a temporary sigh of relief when I did this.

But it took the thrill out of reading at the same time.

The times I did resist.

Hung in there when I didn’t know how things ended until I actually got to the end of the book.

Those were the best times.

So what did I learn?

Don’t read ahead. Don’t end things before they’re supposed to end. And if something doesn’t make sense and you can’t see how it could possibly end well?

I say fuck it.

Keep reading anyway.

Twenty years from now, you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do then by the things you did. So throw of your bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

-H. Jackson Brown

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Go in March.

SXSW 2011 (1 of 1).jpg

Unless you’ve heard a guitar in Austin, you haven’t heard a guitar.

There’s something about the cry a six-string makes in that city. Pulls at something behind your ribcage. Makes you believe in a world you read about back when you read with a bed sheet over your head and a flashlight in your fist. A Neverland of sorts.

When you go to Austin to hear a guitar for the first time, you need to go in March. The third week is good.

Strap yourself in your Ford (or book a flight, but an Austin flight in March is gonna cost you a small down payment on a house) and floor it down I-35. Get off on the Riverside exit.

Park in a parking lot right before the Congress Street bridge (there’s a couple establishments you won’t get towed at—P. Terry’s is not one of them). Walk across the bridge.

And walk onto Sixth Street.

Musicians. Long hair. Always long hair with jeans skinnier than Kate Moss’s left arm. Wailing their lungs out in bars cramped with so many faces and Lone Star cans, no one can fist pump an arm without knocking liquid onto the next shirt over. Not that anyone cares. The windows in the bars are flung open on their hinges, and the music floods the streets, bathing the masses that can’t make it through the doorway.

Traveling kids. Smelling of dirt and sweat and promise and yesterday’s dinner. They come from Oregon. And New Orleans. And the birth town of Tarantino. Their dingy white Home Depot buckets are upside down. Their drumsticks hit against the rims, echoing in the street as the crowds form circles around them. Men with flat-bill hats emerge. Their wrists and palms hit the street pavement as their Nike-swooshed feet spin around their heads like helicopter blades.

And hopefuls. Hopefuls hoping to lock eyes with a face that will nod them through the “Badge Holders Only” sign. Hoping to muster the courage to open their mouth to the pretty girl with the glitter on her arms, “You like Widespread, too?” And hopefuls hoping to see if the magic of a city they’ve never been to before will lead them to where they’re supposed to be in life.

So go to hear the guitars in Austin. And go in March. You may find more than music.

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to all of those i’ve loved before

VD (1 of 1).jpg

To all of those I’ve loved before.

Thank you.

Most of you I don’t keep in contact with. Staying friends with someone I used to know has never been easy for me. So I apologize for that.

But I did want to say thank you.

You saw something in me that I never saw in myself.

You liked me.

You see. For the longest time, I didn’t like myself. And if we’re going to be real here, I’m still not there yet. Maybe it’s an artist thing. Maybe it’s a kid-with-daddy-issues or bad-childhood thing. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t come easy for me. It’s something I’m working on. It’s something I’m in therapy for. It’s something I’ll battle till the day they throw my coffee grinds in the ocean (screw being in the ground for eternity, my heart has always been the water).

But I’m getting there.

And you helped me.

Not that things were ever perfect. But every vintage camera you showed me that used to belong to your dad. Every shoulder you let me lay my head on in a subway car on the ride back to Silver Springs. Every roof top climbed while hoping the pizza place didn’t see us snaking through the hole in the ceiling of their establishment (and they didn’t).

Every football field and ocean view and love gone wrong.

Helped me me realize the best things in life are other humans.

And I fall into the human category.

So thank you for that.

Know you’re never far from my heart. And know you’re also a big reason why I’m drawn to my first love: music. Many of the songs I hear have memories tied to someone I love. And every time I hear one, no matter where the venue is or where I am in the crowd, you’re right there with me.

I’ll see you soon then.

And thank you. From the bottom of my ragged, tattered, torn and stitched-up patchwork quilt of a heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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how to wear shoes II

LR (21 of 21)

aerial shot of washington, d.c., copyright 2015 laura roberts

in 2008 i moved to d.c. i was young–a few days into 23. dumb–i figured morphing myself into some kind of [wannabe] political guru would get me over a recent heartbreak.

and more than anything, i was trying to figure out what the hell i was supposed to do with my life.

“i’ve heard everyone has a cause or passion they’re apart of in d.c.,” i said to someone over the phone the summer before i went. “i want to find my passion. i’ll go to d.c. and i’ll find out what it is–they’re a million different causes up there, and with the political internship i’ll be doing, i’ll find one–and then i’ll get behind it and do that.”

a short month and a half of living in the beltway and submerging myself into the senate internship i’d taken on, the wheels on my d.c. love affair began to fall off.

for one thing, my black dress pants were becoming tight around my once taunt middle. days of sitting in a rolling office chair and eating pastries out of washington coffee shops had caught up with me. freshman fifteen my ass. i’d lost weight in college. in d.c., i put on ten pounds in a matter of weeks.

for another, i was becoming sneakily suspicious about the whole way the political scene was run. white-haired senator after white-haired senator appeared in the office: slow shuffled steps, hearing aids bulging out of ear canals. another rolled by in a wheelchair, blue veins stark against translucent white skin. is this a nursing home or the united states senate i’ve checked into? the senators were swarmed with twenty-four-year-old staffers, their young hands double-fisting blackberry’s (2008—apple wasn’t cool yet), and barking out orders to whoever was on the other end of the line or text. i often went home wondering who was really running the country.

but it was the people themselves that began to eat at me.

defensive.

quick to jab.

eyes narrowed, ready to pounce on any breathed word that clashed with their view.

i never felt smart or brave enough to speak up in a political discussion–well, i did once; it didn’t go so smoothly–but i did become increasing good at taking the lead in any given conversation.

“i see. how do YOU feel the republicans are handling the foreign policy bill that’s currently on the floor?”

my vocals two pitches lower than my normal talking voice, my head cocked to the side in an inquisitive manner. my (unbeknownst to him/her) interviewee’s eyes would go wide, as if he/she’d been waiting all day for someone to ask.

“WELL!”

i’d nod calmly along as they talked with words that my three months of political cramming hadn’t covered–what the hell is a constituent??–as i scribbled furiously in my head things to google later on that evening.

fuck.

the whole process made me feel like some sort of phony psychologist—“i see. and how does THAT make you feel?”–and i hated myself for it.

so because i was lonely.

and didn’t like these people or the kind of person i was becoming.

i spent a lot of time in my new town walking around by myself.

in my purse, i’d thrown a small camera that had once belonged to my brother. and because i would rather have died than have a photograph taken of me at the moment—fat (in my mind), depressed, and feeling like a fraud about to be unmasked at any given moment—i took to taking pictures of my surroundings.

“damn it!”

i’d say under my breath when a bulging bottom of a heavy tourist would enter my shot of the lincoln memorial.

not only did i not want pictures of myself taken, i also didn’t want any people in my pictures. people were the reason i hated this city. people (a person) was the reason my heart was broken. people were not to be trusted.

“that WOULD have been a good photo,” i’d say in my head as i waited until the tottering body was out of the frame.

my pictures weren’t horrible—i’d shot video all through high school and college—but they were by no means any kind of work of art. they did, however, give me a bit of a purpose as i walked around the city by myself.

or at least made me look like less lonely.

the elections came and went along with my internship (i was, however, offered opportunities to work in various senators’ offices, making me ponder if the field of acting might be my true life’s calling). and at the end of november, i couldn’t get in my mom’s car fast enough to head back to nashville. i’d never wanted to get out of a town so fast.

a town that hadn’t cured me of heartbreak.

a town that had added ten pounds to my once thin frame.

but above all, a town i would never forgive because it had suckered me in and lied to me: i didn’t find my passion.

_____________________________________________________

the waiting place

my next few years were spent working various jobs that left me wondering if my past four years at university—hours spent holded up at my campus tv studio and internships in new york city and the tennessee titans locker room—had actually occurred.

“so what do i tell my kids who see you working the job you have now,” she asked facing me, nose flared out. “why go to college to come back to work at a place you worked in high school?”

i swallowed, not knowing what to say to the parent standing in front of me with the glasses and curly hair.

that i had tried to get a job in the field i gotten my degree in—broadcast journalism (and even though i was “good” on-camera, i felt almost as big of a fraud on screen as i did pretending to discuss politics in d.c.)?

that i’d spent six months after d.c. sending resume tapes to places like cheyenne, wy and charlottesville, va (and truth be told, i’d started mailing out resume tapes on my lunch break  from the senate mailroom when i was still in d.c.)? that i’d taken a road trip down to texas when i moved back to tennessee, personally dropping off resume tapes all over the lone star state—from abilene to victoria—nearly fifty hours of driving in four and half days.

and the tearful day? the one i will never forget as long as i live. i’d given myself six months to try to find a job in my field. and when that date expired at the end of april, how i’d laid down in the bed with the blue comforter at my mom’s apartment where i was now living and cried harder than i’d ever cried in my entire life.

harder then when i’d been asked if i was a boy or girl or an “it” for three months in sixth grade after one such horrible haircut.

harder then when he said he didn’t think we could truly be ourselves around each other.

harder then when—

“i don’t know,” was all i could muster as she walked away.
_____________________________________________________

austin.

but in-between lifeguarding at the neighborhood pool and slinging t-shirts at my local abercrombie and spending nights in the arms of men who were just as lost as myself, i kept my brother’s point-and-shoot canon in my red fossil purse. and sometimes i’d pull it out to take a photo.

i still wasn’t too keen on photographing people, but i’d take photos here and there of things that were safe: houses. cathedrals. trees that merely wanted to be trees.

“…it’s a special city. i can’t explain it. people of all ages come out and listen to live music any night of the week.”

i couldn’t even tell you why, but the moment i heard someone at my gym say the name of austin, tx for the first time when i was twenty-four—i know, i know; i didn’t get an “A” in geography class—i felt drawn to the city.

“i’m going to move there someday.”

i began announcing it to anyone who brought it up as the months went on.

“oh. have you been,” polite nashville voices would inquire back kindly.

“no. but i will.”

and in 2011, i took a road trip down to sxsw, austin’s annual festival that showcases everything from music to film to everything otherwise. and i brought my little canon with me. five days spent around musicians with strangling hair and eyes that were as hurt and lost as my own captivated me. i had always tried to hide mine; their’s were in full view for all to see.

something in me broke.

i took my rule of “no photographing humans” and pitched it out the third-floor window. and i began taking pictures of the musicians and the instruments that they loved.

and i fell in love.

six months later i moved to austin. i spent my days and my months with my camera–i’d upgraded to an SLR canon now– in bars, taking photos of the musicians. hanging out with the artists i waited tables with. and things started happening.

i started working as a photographer.

i shot bonnaroo music and arts festival for a publication. i had a photo published in an ad that appeared in the magazine guitar world. i shot an album cover.

there were many moments i pinched myself, wondering how a scraggly girl from tennessee–i’d lost the ten pounds–was able to experience and be apart of the things i was able to experience and be apart of.

but there where lows that came, too.

as any artist can tell you, the freelance world is not for the faint of heart. you’re always hustling. always reaching out to one publication or person–and three-fourths of the time, you hear crickets as a response. you question yourself and your worth as an artist. you spend a lot of your time wondering if you’re a waitress or a photographer. on the good days, the photographer wins out.

but there’s a lot of days that aren’t good days.

after two years of waiting tables, i decided to get a “real girl job” and accepted a position with a wonderful non-profit organization. the individuals i worked with couldn’t have been kinder, the work couldn’t have been for a better cause—for god’s sake, we were raising money for children to go to college. but the bottom line of it was signing up to do work in front of a computer and answer phones. my free-spirited self who loved nothing more than to be moving and outside and talking to people and capturing a moment with photos or words or both, was now sitting for the majority of a forty-hour work week. i knew this when i took the job on. it thought i was strong enough to do it.

i wasn’t.

i worked my ace off at the job, gave everything i took on 120% of my blood and sweat and tears. i excelled at my position with the company and i did it all with a smile on my face. but underneath my mask, i was the unhappiest i’d ever been working a job.

i was also dating a man who looked equally as great on paper—gainfully employed? check. extremely good looking? double check. worshiped the ground i walked on? shit. triple check. but like my job, i was never more miserable in my love life than when i was dating that man.

the more miserable i became, the more i stopped taking photos. stopped going to shows. stopped hanging around artists.

my shooting days came to a slow drip of a faucet.

at best.

_____________________________________________________

stuck on you.

i moved back to nashville at the end of 2014.

having quit the man and the job i so wanted to fit me but didn’t.

tears were streaming down my face and my stomach hurt at the very thought of leaving austin, the town i will love until the day i die. but i knew it was time.

i had learned what i needed to learn from my favorite place in the entire world.

i spent 2015 in nashville, working jobs at a rock gym and a nursing home and a psychiatric hospital (and three other jobs), trying to figure out what the fuck it was i supposed to be doing with my life.

i started shooting a little with my camera again, although i wasn’t sure what my relationship was going to be with it now. i looked at it the same way i looked at people when i had moved to dc: i couldn’t trust it. it had brought me some of my greatest happinesses—radiohead at bonnaroo, the cody jasper band in austin’s bat bar (if you’re ever in austin, don’t leave without checking out cody jasper, who is a guitar god–and i mean that), sxsw—but also my greatest heartbreak: i’d failed; i hadn’t “made it” as a photographer in austin.

my camera went up on craigslist in april. that same time day, i got an email saying the price i had it listed as was a grand more than a new version of the model.

what the fuc—

i googled. sure enough. my camera, while still an amazing camera, was no longer the coolest kid on the block. hello EOS 5DS.

fuck.

i stared at my canon body with the 50 mm attached. my very first lens. there was no way i would sell my camera for the dollar amount that i would have to sell it at now—close to half of what i’d paid just a couple years before.

well, little guy.

i stared at my camera long and hard.

i think we’re stuck with each other.

i started shooting more live music again. some of those old feelings of when i used to shoot began to surface. i hung out in east nashville, shooting some of the musicians there–they reminded me of austin. i shot bonnaroo for a publication a few months later. and in august, i stumbled into nashville’s new ascend amphitheater. the new outdoor theatre brought something out in me. maybe it was the newness of it. maybe it was the hope of it. but whatever reason it was, the feelings i had shooting all those years in austin were back.

it was then that i decided i didn’t care if i ever made another fucking cent off my photo work.

didn’t care who thought i was crazy for wanting to walk around as a twenty-nine-year-old woman and shoot dirty musicians.

i was going to take photographs until they pried my canon body from my cold dead fingers.

_____________________________________________________

you’ll see

“can i help you ma’am?”

i’m trying to buy a metro card.

“um yeah. i don’t know what to buy.”

“how long you gonna be here?”

“till monday.”

“just buy twelve bucks worth. you won’t need anymore than that—add more cash if you need to.”

i take the subway from reagan airport down to chinatown. get on the red line and get off at farrgot north. i’m in d.c. and killing time before my friend gets off work. seven years have passed since i’ve been in the city i swore i would never forgive.

i wander into a deli, talk spanish (thank you, texas) with the man i’m ordering my turkey wrap from. swap hello’s and grins with the owner. he’s from new york.

“been here thirty years.”

the pride in his voice reminds me of a man talking about a son who served.

i walk up the washington mall, smiling easily at people as they walk by. and people—in suits and t-shirts alike—they smile back. i say hello to some. each says hello back.

the dark and dreary city i’ve painted in my head isn’t dark and dreary at all.

“where you from?”

he’s visiting from europe. we’re near the white house.

“nashville. but i used to live here seven years ago. this is the first time i’ve been back.”

“oh, yeah? has it changed much?”

i swallow. think.

“no. but i have.”

and for the first time in seven years, i realize.

d.c. couldn’t cure me of my heartbreak all those years ago.

no city could.

only time could do that.

d.c. also wasn’t the awful place i’d made it out to be in my head. that was merely the spot i was in at the time—whether i was in d.c. or a refrigerator box from lowe’s. and the political folk. well, that was their cup of tea. it wasn’t mine. but me trying to be them, that was the biggest problem of the people of d.c.

in spite of everything, in spite of me hating the town for so long, blaming the town for not fulfilling my dreams of finding my passion so many years ago, i realized something i hadn’t realized: d.c. hadn’t lied to me at all.

not in the slightest.

“are you a photographer?”

my camera is around my neck.

“i am.”

“would you–” he’s got his phone in his hand.

“i’d love to. umm, let’s see. let’s get closer to the white house; it’ll block some of the light that’s coming in.”

we walk forward, take a few shots.

“yeah. let me see with my camera.”

i take a few shots for lighting purposes.

“yea. that’s better. but let’s get closer.”

and we get closer.

because sometimes you have to do that when you’re taking a photo. you have to block the harsh light that’s coming in. it’ll blow out your frame and create highlights if you don’t. highlights that are so blown even photoshop can’t fix them.

but other times, you’ve got to step back. give the subject and yourself some space. some time.

to see the picture you want to see.

but don’t worry.

take a step back.

you’ll see.

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the luckiest

LOTG 9.12.15 (3 of 4)-2

“i don’t get many things right the first time
in fact
i am told that a lot”

-ben folds, “the luckiest”

She’s on the right side. I know she’s on the right side.

Why do you think she’s on the right side?

She was on the right side with the Shakey Graves concert.

Well, this isn’t Shakey Graves.

Sigh. Conversations in my head always seem to resemble family arguments from years past. Voices are strained and combative. Somebody’s always got a frying pan in their hand.

Well. Try listening to your gut.

Pause.

She’s on the right side.

Okay then.

I grab both shoulder straps of my American Apparel backpack. The field is full of naps of necks and backs of heads.
Thousands. Of backs of heads.

Shit.

I glance at my iPhone. Thumbnail of a red battery bar left.

“And facing the stage are you on the left or right side?”

Still no reply.

Okay.

I suck in my breath.

Going for it.

I fumble the camera looped around my neck. The friend that spares me from feeling alone, even when I’m thousands of miles from my hometown.

Especially when I’m in my hometown.

How the hell are there so many of them?

The naps of their necks are clean. Their faces free of raised-eyebrow and furrowed-brow lines. Eyes that lack any cigarette singes of hurt. No trances of decades lived yet.

The last radio hit Ben Folds had was when these kids were guzzling Gerber vegetables. Shit.

I’ve underestimated the Brick man.

The band has taken to the stage. Their black suits and formal dresses clash against the audience’s checkered shirts and faded denim.

Damn it. I told her I was going to met her in front of the stage at 9:30. There’s no way I’m going get down there by 9:30. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.

Stringed instruments make up half of the onstage semi-circle. A cello. A bow.

The other half is shiny. A silver flute. A black clarinet.

Ben Folds has on a dark blazer.

“Here at the courthouse.”

The big screen next to the stage zooms in. His eyes blink from behind thick glasses.

“I got two divorces here. And kissed the ground under this stage.”

The polite Nashville crowd sputters, unsure of what noise to make.

Ben continues on.

“This song is about Kesha in New Orleans.”

I went to school with that girl. What a weird town.

Ben plucks at his piano keys.

“Take it easy
Take it slow.”

The young audience heads bob along.

“…And I’ll be back on your sofa in a puddle in a couple of weeks…”

My head surveys. Watching the crowd.

Ever so often, a body will wiggle free, swimming towards the exits. But each swimmer goes solo. No open field pockets get created.

No people trains head towards the stage either. I’ve gotten decent at jumping on trains headed towards a stage–the easiest way to get up front. But there are no people trains running tonight.

Seriously. This is pointless. There are so. Many. People here. I’m never going to find her at Blues on the—fuck. Nashville calls it Live on the Green.

God.

The hit comes like a steel shovel against my kneecaps.

I miss Austin.

My shoulders heave.

My throat reels, raw from the weeks of the sinus infection that won’t quit.

I could leave.

But the thought of letting her down—

How will I ever get to the front?

One person at a time.

Sigh.

Enjoy the experience and the moment for what it is.

You know, there is nothing normal about talking to yourself in this manne—

“Rock this bitch!”

Ben’s mouth is eating the piano mic. Making up a verse about a disruptive drunk man in the front row.

“…you should know better than to interrupt my waltz!” 

He sings in a playful, yet purposeful prose type-of-way.

The crowd leans in, feeding off the energy of the moment being created. One that hasn’t been created before.

“Rock this BITCH!”

On YouTube.

“ROCK THIS BITCH!”

Or in Austin.

A smile starts and I sing along with the crowd.

“ROCK THIS BITCH!!!!!!!”

A girl leans closer to her boyfriend. I step forward.

Notes fade on and songs soak the face field that gleams with amusement.

A family with a little one calls it a night.

I float into the open spot.

Ben Folds and his orchestra play on, .

I push forward, gaining a half step.

I stop pushing.

Soak up the music that isn’t familiar. The faces you don’t know. The air that isn’t Texas.

Most of my minutes are spent standing.

Waiting.

Not moving anywhere.

But enjoying it.

And slowly–it’s forty minutes into the set and almost accidental now–the front barricades and security are in eyesight.

How did I—

A backwards hat with a white animal icon.

Wait a second—

I strain my neck.

Is that a West Texas—? Nobody in Nashville has any business owning a West Texas A&M hat unless someone from Texas gave it to th—

“I’m so sorry,” I sputter.

I’m leaning into the girl next to mine’s space.

“That’s my little sister up there.”

She nods back.

I strain my neck again.

The guy on the other side of me looks over.

“Sorry.”

I’m invading his air.

“My sister’s up there.”

“Who’s your sister,” he spouts, grinning.

Smart aleck.

“She’s up there.”

Keep an open mind.

“Faith Roberts.”

His eyes smile and he laughs
.
“I know Faith Roberts. We lifeguard together at theY.”

“I work at the Y!”

Pause.

“Can I?”

He grins and nods.

And I step forward.

“I’m sorry. That’s my sister. Can I?”

They push me through.

I reach the backwards hat. My arms go around her frame.

“Faither!!!”

She turns, surprise and assurance in her eyes.

“Laura!!!!!!”

My arms cling to my favorite thing in Tennessee. She clings back.

“How did you?!—“

“I told you I would.”

_______________________________________________________

Not far from us is a man and a woman. The woman wears a white gown with a jeweled headband on her forehead. The man is in a black tuxedo.

Their hands hold a sign. The words “The Luckiest” are included on it.

“Sign! Sign! Sign!”

Everyone is chanting and pointing.

“We have a sign,” Ben Folds announces to his sea of faces. “I can’t read it.”

He pauses.

“Oh, somebody just got married. That’s awesome.”

His voice reads like a White House press conference.

“Congrats to you guys.”

Court steps. Divorces.

Ben plays his song about the army.

A bow.

An exit.

The night has come to a close.

Ben’s figure enters onto the stage. Solo. He sits at the piano.

“This is for the couple that just got married.”

His head tilts.

“If you know this song, could you please sing along?”

He stops.

“For them.”

And starts.

“and where was i before the day that i first saw your lovely face
now i see it every day
and i know”

Somewhere in the crowd, the couple with the jeweled headband and the black jacket dance, their eyes close and their foreheads against each other.

“that i am
i am
i am
the luckiest”

My camera and I lean into my sister.

Her back heaves.

And together, she and I, and the rest of the September crowd without face lines, find tears glistening at the top of our cheekbones.

Live music doesn’t care if you’re in Austin.

Or Nashville.

Or somewhere in between and still trying to figure it out.

It just cares that you listen.

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[Letting go]

Letting Go

diamond rings and old bar stools
one’s for queens and one’s for fools
one’s the future and one’s the past
one’s forever and one won’t last

-“diamond rings and old bar stools”, performed by tim mcgraw, written by jonathan singleton, barry dean and luke laird

“I fell in love with you.”

I say this as we’re walking down Woodland at Five Points. We’ve already crossed the traffic light. The restaurants are on our left.

“What is love,” he says.

“Seriously, Mitch. I fell in love with you.”

I don’t say it apologetically. I don’t bookcase it with, “No big deal”, or some sort of joke like I always do. I’m sick right now and don’t really have the energy to do anything else with my vocal chords other than spit out words without much inflection.

“What is love,” he repeats himself steadily.

“I don’t know,” I say truthfully. Because I don’t know what the correct definition is.

I recently saw a movie where a character is asked how he knows he’s in love with a girl.

“Because nothing feels right without her.”

For me and my situation, this doesn’t fit.

“All I know,” I take a breath, trying to think. We pass the restaurant without the glass in the windows. “You were the first person I loved hanging out with naked as much as I loved hanging out with as a friend. You were my friend.”

I continue on.

“I mean, we used to climb rooftops together downtown. And go swimming half-naked at Barton Springs—in a non-sexual way. Do remember that old lady that kept asking me to do my handstands off the diving board when I was in a thong?”

His frame doubles forward. “Hahaha. Yeah.”

“I mean for God’s sake, I helped you push your van down the frontage road of I-35.”

He smiles and nods.

“You were my friend,” I say in a voice filled with not much of a fight. “I lost a friend.”

He doesn’t object. We’re back in the Dollar General parking lot and I’m fishing for my keys.

“I hope I have them.”

He’s on my driver’s side, waiting. My purse weighs a ton and I sit it on top of my hood as I pull things out of it.

“Seriously. I had them.”

He walks behind the car and towards the driver’s side.

“Okay, if I…”

He throws his arms around my shoulder blades and we stand there in the Dollar General parking lot in East Nashville. The backs of our heads touch and neither of us say anything. He squeezes his arms as tight as he can. I squeeze back.

And the hurt from four years before seeps out of my pores and into the night.

“What a great moon,” his Colorado voice had remarked earlier.

I looked up as we walked back from the ice cream store with the funny name. It was a sliver of a thumbnail—not much of one and not my kind of moon.

But it was still up in the sky, and still doing it’s very best to make the night as lovely as it could be.

It needn’t have tried so hard.

For a fleeting moment. I had my friend back.

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Always.

LY6A8243

One.

“NO!”

A very definite “no” floods out of my iPhone speaker.

“Wait. Why not,” I sputter. After all, my sister is the one I’ve made the “I’ll do it before you graduate” pact.

“I don’t want to mess it up.”

Her words shoot out like a knee with a reflex hammer.

“Faith,” I counter. “It’s shaving a head. You can’t mess up shaving a head.”

“NO.”

Two.

“I am not,” my father’s voice is steadfast as his eyes burrow at me from his striped patio chair. “Going to be apart of that.”

As if I’ve suggested we vandalism a vitamin shop.

My father is very serious about his vitamins.

“Why not?”

His bottom lip sucks in. The way he does when people talk about living together before they’re married. Or eating gluten.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Three.

“Mom, do you still have that haircutting kit?”

“Yes,” she chirps. She sounds echoey, making me wonder if she’s somehow pulled her rotary phone into the kitchen. My mom doesn’t own a cell phone.

“Okay. Awesome. Okay, so I’m not losing my mind, or pulling a Britney Spears, but I’m going to shave my head. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to do for awhile now.”

My words sputter out in a rambling, defensive way.

“Oh. Okay. Sure.”

No change in her pitch.

“The clippers are in the bathroom closet.”

I arrive at her house the following day. She isn’t home. I stare at my face in the mirrors that line her walls. Read about Jane Seymour’s tips for wearing a bikini at age 64.

An hour and a half later, a car door opens. My mom is juggling bags. I pull open the door and grab a couple. Carry and place them on the kitchen counter.

“So. Mom. I found the kit in the bathroom. I’m ready. You okay to shave my head?”

My mom continues on about the leaking jar of canola oil she returned.

“…a hole in the bottom of the glass jar. I couldn’t believe it!”

Crap. I thought she wouldn’t—

“Mom. Do you not feel comfortable shaving my head?”

“Well.”

Her face.

“Not really.”

I breathe in.

“Okay. Why?”

“Well, if you don’t like it, or if you start crying in the middle of me cutting it. I just don’t…”

Internally I sigh out.

“It’s okay, mom.”

_______________________________________________________

It’s my first Tennessee Christmas since moving to Austin.

I’m in love with my new music city, but if I stop long enough to think about everything, thoughts of What the fuck are you—?? tend to creep into my mind. Some nights, it takes all 110% of my self control not to crawl into the front seat of my Taurus and cruise-control the fourteen hours back to my other music city.
Change can be the best and most needed thing you need. And Austin is. But it’s still change and scary as fuck.
I pull up to my brother’s apartment in Murfreesboro. Push open the door and walk into the room with the barren white walls. The fuzzy pool table. The roommate’s dog that always looks confused.

“Heeeyyy!”

My two brothers are upstairs. I sling my arms around their necks. We’re gonna watch Fight Club and talk about vaporized marijuana.

“Hey, Kara’s* coming over.”

My brother Adam.

“Who’s Kara?”

“The girl Will’s talking to.”

“What? He just broke up with ___________.”

What the hell. This is family time.

“Yeah. Well.”

The door downstairs opens. We walk downstairs.

A short petite figure stands in a black peacoat. She’s looking at me.

“Hi. My name is Kara.”

Her face is porcelain. Something straight from the soft side of a baby. Her eyes are lined with dark pencil and a black mascara swipes.

And her head is shaved. I stare.

Good lord. She’s beautiful. How the hell can a woman be so beautiful with a shaved head? Isn’t that basically the epitome of what makes a female a female?

“Hi,” I answer back. Forced. She’s eating up my family time.

I spend the evening bantering and barking with my brothers. Getting in their space and faces. They do the same. And for the most part, I ignore the tiny creature with the big eyes in the corner.

“If you could fight anyone…”

At some point, Brad Pitt is put on pause. My brothers rise and clamber out of the room. Bathroom or grub or both. I rise to make my way out.

“You’re really beautiful,” she looks right at me.

“Thank you,” I stammer and walk down the stairs to find my brothers and see what’s left in the fridge.

I drive to Nashville and my mom’s house that night. A few days later, I head back to Austin.

But the shaved head girl has left an impression on me.

She’s beautiful, yes. Chillingly beautiful, even with, or especially with a shaved head. But it’s her attitude that sticks with me. She’s not threatened by other’s beauty. And she’s not intimated by society’s definition of beauty.

I wonder if I can ever be as brave as the shaved head girl.

_____________________________________________________
A year goes by. Following a Valentine’s Day breakup with a man, I whack my shoulder-length crop into a Tinker Bell pixie cut.

“Always wanted to,” I say to anyone that asks about my new ‘do.

And I did always want to.

But I don’t feel brave.

Around this time, other women’s haircut stories begin hitting my ears:

“I did it in eighth grade. Didn’t tell anyone. Just came home with it shaved. I just wanted to.”

“[My boyfriend] actually shaved it for me. Yeah. I’ve always to shave my head.”

“I shaved it about a month ago. It was just something I wanted to do.”

Another year goes by. Another breakup with another guy. This time I don’t follow it with a haircut. I follow it with a year of not dating. A year of rock climbing. Of breaking my foot (not rock climbing). Of quitting my “big girl” job with benefits, moving back home to my hometown city and working jobs that range from teaching swimming to sanitizing climbing shoes at a rock gym.
Six months in Nashville.

Six months of meeting up with my dad for MSG and gluten-free dinners. Followed by Nestle chocolate chips and gelato. Six months of sitting in a puffy Starbucks chair with my sixteen-year-old sister to talk about Honors English and why Pisces are so emotional. And being able to reach across the table to ruffle her head when I want to ruffle her head. Three months of accompanying my mom to her Sunday School class in a large basement room where there’s always someone grabbing my arm and leaning in with, “Your mom is so wonderful.”

Six months of writing. Not for a publication. Not for a blog. In a small notebook with scribbles and crossed out words and cramped ink letters. And in one entry, the words: “Writing is breathing to me. I know no difference.”

Six months.
_______________________________________________________

“Hi!!”

I walk into the salon. I’d been there six months before. When I first moved back to Nashville. I can’t remember the receptionist’s name—I’m sure she doesn’t remember mine—but she’s bubbly and we make small talk about mutual faces we know.

“So,” I lean forward. “I’m been wanting to shave my head for a while, and I’m going to do it today. Can one of you guys shave my head? Could Liza?”

Her eyes go wide.

“Let me see!”

She leaves the front and comes back within a minute.

“How about 5 o’clock?”

“Great!”

45 minutes. I go for a run in the neighborhood. Do a face mask at home. Drive back to the salon.

And sit in the chair.

“You ready,” Liza squeals.

My eyes are closed tight.

I nod.

I don’t look in the mirror as the razor hits my skin. It’s like giving blood: I want to do it. I just don’t wanna watch the needle go in.

The buzzing noise harvests my hair.

My eyes squeeze tighter.

It’s the roller coaster cranking up the hill before the first initial drop.

“Ohmygosh you look amazing!!”

“Ohmygosh that is so badass!!!”

The other girls in the salon are gathered around.

The buzzing noise stops.

“Okay,” Liza says.

I look in the mirror.

To my utter surprise. I see myself staring back. A girl that’s still a girl even with a shaved head.

“You used the 2,” I tilt my head towards Liza.

She nods.

“Okay. Well. Do you think I need to do a 1? I mean, I’m only doing this once in my life, and I don’t want to be accused of not actually shaving my head.”

“Do you want me to show you what a 1 looks like on your neck?”

I nod.

She slides the 1 up my neck.

I breathe in.

“Let’s do the 1. I mean hell. I moved back from Texas. Go big or go home.”

She laughs.

The buzzing noise slides up my scalp.

“Why did you shave your head,” my brother stares at me.

“I’ve always wanted to. I’ve meet different girls over the year that have…and remember Kara? Will’s Kara? I always wanted to after I met her. She had a shaved head and she was so beautiful.”

“Kara,” my brother scoff’s at the name. “She hated having her head shaved.”

“What–” I stop short and stare back at him. “I thought she loved it! She did it after a breakup with that guy before Will.”

“She said she wished she hadn’t. Couldn’t wait for it to grow out,” he says slowly. No inflection.

“She always regretted it.”

*Name has been changed

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