The radio told me the name of the band. It was the same band as on my goat t-shirt, the shirt that had made the man at The Stars Our Destination speak to me as if I were a woman. This was clearly a sign. The next day I followed the man’s voice to the Coconuts in the newly constructed strip mall on Lake and Harlem, the fancily titled River Forest Shopping Center. For a moment I stood on the curb, looking at the Gap across the street. I could almost see myself just the day before, cold and wet in my baggy blue pants, a completely different person. Today I was wearing the crunchy black pants, which seemed to actively repel the slush. My mom, waiting in her car in the parking lot, beeped her horn at me and pointed at the store.
I went into Coconuts and bought the CD. My parents had been giving me an allowance for a long time, but I had never had anything to spend it on before. I wasn’t expected to buy my clothes and books with my own money. I had nibbled off little corners the mass of twenty-dollar bills accumulating in a shoebox under my bed, buying popcorn at movies or shiny Lucite rings, but I had never spent more than ten dollars at a time. The CD cost fourteen ninety-nine.
Every night after that, I listened to the entire album before bed. The first song was my song from the radio, but I liked the others, too. None of them was as quiet or whispery as the first song, my song. They had throbbing guitars and pointy keyboard tinkling. The man stretched his voice into a growl and flattened it out into a screech. I looked for pictures of him in my parents’ magazines. I had read some of the articles before, but now it was as if I had only just begun to understand what words meant, like when Sophia had finally begun talking like an adult after four years of baby-speak. Even though it was normal, we had all acted like she was a miracle.
The man was tall, with blue eyes and very big hands. In one picture I saw that he had a birthmark all along his left arm, a grape-juice colored stain splotchy against his pale skin, as if God had dropped something horrible on him. I looked into the man’s blue eyes for just a moment before I closed the magazines and stacked them carefully under my bed. When the schedule of summer school classes came out I asked my parents if I could take group guitar lessons. They said yes.
“Good idea, Neeners,” my dad said, smiling.
Over the rest of the spring I spent all of my saved-up allowance money buying the band’s other albums, then their singles, then all of the t-shirts I could find in trade catalogs printed on cheap newsprint. My parents delivered these to me as they came in the mail, my mom shaking out the t-shirts and exclaiming over their smell of mothballs and cigarettes, my dad asking me to model the newest shirt for him. Sophia wrinkled her nose at whatever was in front of her—she was a picky eater—and touched her beautiful dark hair.
“I don’t like that shirt,” she said. “It’s weird.”
“Your shirt has a dolphin with a bow on its head,” I said. “Dolphins don’t have hair, how could they wear bows?”
Sophia lowered her eyelids, superior. “It’s a princess dolphin,” she said. “The rules are different.”
My parents had instructed me never to mention Sophia’s birthmark; they didn’t want her to become self-conscious of the quarter-sized patch of skin below her right eye a half-shade darker than the rest of her face. I envied her her little difference. I resisted the urge to reach across the table and pinch the birthmark. She grinned suddenly, revealing her missing front tooth, and I felt guilty.
In June, when school was almost over, the radio told me that the band was playing a concert in Tinley Park. I wrote the information down on a small notepad I had received for Christmas and had been waiting to use. I tore the sheet off and went downstairs. I had never been to a concert, but I had to go to this one. I began to calculate scenarios: the man would see me in the crowd; he would reach for me, draw me up onstage and into his world. He would love me.
It was a Saturday, and my parents were both home, but I did not know where in the house they were. The midday sunlight entered my house through the two-story window at its center, next to the big staircase. When my parents fought, I heard their heavy noises and low voices through the walls, volleys of insults arcing between them. I thought I heard these sounds as I walked towards the kitchen. I pressed my ear against the door. To my left I could see our lilac bushes out the long rectangular window. I closed my eyes and listened to my parents’ low voices, rapid and hard. Then my mom’s laugh rang out through the door and I felt such relief I thought I might collapse, but instead I pushed the door open and walked into our long kitchen.
My parents stood at the breakfast bar, talking and laughing. They were eating roast beef and provolone sandwiches.
“Want one, Neeners?” my father asked, wiggling his eyebrows at me.
“Yes,” I said, ravenous and happy.
My dad took a grinder roll from a clear plastic bag and sawed it in half with a long serrated knife, then drizzled each half with olive oil. He put the split roll in the toaster oven and turned the dial to “Dark.” My mother stood silhouetted in the light from the windows, her red shirt glowing like a lantern. She took a bite of her sandwich and then put it back down on her brightly colored plate.
“You guys,” I said to them. “I want to go to a concert.”
“When is it?” my dad asked. I watched his mouth move in his beard. He had a strong nose and brown eyes with smile lines at the corners under huge black eyebrows. For as long as I could remember, my father had had a beard. When I was little it was all black, but in recent years the lower half had turned white. I read him the information I had written down on my notepad.
“That sounds fun,” my mom said carefully. I knew that she would not take me to the concert. She did not like loud music or standing up for long periods. I waited for my father’s answer. The toaster oven ticked down the seconds.
“Well, sure,” he said. The toaster oven dinged and he walked to the cupboard, pulled out a red-and-turquoise plate and transferred the bread. My mom called these plates “the Acapulco set.”
He went to the blooming white paper packages of roast beef and provolone on the counter and pulled out several slices of each, layering them on the warm bread. The smell made my mouth water. My father cut my sandwich in half with a different, heavier knife, and then handed it to me. “We should go.” He said finally. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a concert.”
“You’ll take me?”
“I’ll take you, Neeners.” He smiled and watched me dance around the kitchen. He said he was excited, too.
* * *
The show was in Tinley Park, a southwest suburb near my dad’s lonely office. He drove almost without looking at the road, occasionally taking his hand from the wheel to straighten the teal t-shirt he had worn for the occasion.
“Now, it’s going to be loud,” he said.
“I know, Daddy,” I said.
When we neared the concert venue, a teenager in a long t-shirt holding a posterboard with the word PARKING scrawled in red marker directed my dad to an open field. Everyone at the concert was older than me, and most of them clutched transparent plastic cups of yellow beer in one hand. Women in patchwork skirts sold hemp jewelry and tiny ornate glass pipes at stalls surrounding the bar. Our seats were further back from the stage than I thought they would be. When the lights went down and men came out on stage, I was horrified: the man with the voice was not one of them.
“Dad,” I said, “This isn’t right.”
“It’s the opening band, Nina,” he whispered. “They play first.”
“Oh,” I said.
“This is an all-ages show. Do you know the difference between all-ages and other shows?” My dad took a sip from his transparent cup of beer, leaving a second mustache of foam atop his regular mustache.
I had heard that term—“all-ages”—on Q101, but I didn’t know what it meant.
“Some shows are eighteen and over,” my dad explained, over the blare from the stage. “Others are twenty-one and over. But we got lucky because your favorite band must know that they have young fans, and they made it so that you could come tonight.”
I watched a group of beautiful women walk down the aisle towards their seats. The one in the middle had long curly black hair and wore a gray dress like something out of a fairy tale, with a tight bodice and long floaty skirt. Where did people buy clothes like that? If the man with the voice saw her, he would fall instantly in love.
Years passed as I waited for the opening band to finish. The lights came up and I tried to talk to my dad about concerts he had been to, but I couldn’t focus on his words. I felt short of breath. I couldn’t stop thinking about the moor morning, the sick wanting feeling. An eon passed, and then finally the lights went down again. The band’s drummer came out, then the bassist, then the second guitarist. I knew them all. I should have cared about them, too, but I did not.
But when the man walked onstage a smile climbed up from deep inside me and settled on my mouth. He wore a black suit with a black shirt and black tie. The man put his hands on his guitar and opened his mouth to sing. My mouth ached with curving and my teeth glistened dry.
“It must be really hot on stage,” I whispered to my dad. “It must be too hot.”
My father just smiled.
I had been saving this smile for a special occasion. His voice pulled it out of me and made me wear it on my face. The man’s voice was even better live, even higher and softer. He said “You” and my smile stretched wide open.
He looked the same as in the magazines: a tall bald man with a shining pale head. I knew from pictures that his eyes were wide and understanding, that there was a well-developed crease of concern between his eyebrows and a small scar under his nose. As he sang he spread his fingers wide and sliced them through the air. The music crashed up around him in waves. The crowd screamed and reached for him when he closed his eyes. It was so hot, but I was steady. I would not reach, I would not scream. I sang my love for the man out of my eyes. Sometimes the top half of his body swayed while the second guitarist played a solo. The movement reminded me of the giant tree on the edge of the moor, bobbing in the wind.
I slept that night in my goat t-shirt and wore it the next day to my summer school guitar class. The teacher wanted us to work on a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but all I could hear was the song, my song, the first song I heard on the radio. My favorite song.