The assignment was to write a short, 1000-word story about a piece of music that meant something to you. Here's what I didd.
Birds and Ships
Who knew wood paneling could be so romantic? This was one of the many thoughts racing through my head as I attempted to get warm under the threadbare, scratchy blanket. Who knew that I, ever a cynic, could even process the thought of romance in a way that wasn’t bitter or sarcastic? But I was feeling warm and glowing. Isn’t that how romance is defined in those kinds of girl-meets-boy-and-falls-in-love movies? How did I get here?
* * * * *
My friend who wasn’t a friend, but wasn’t quite yet a boyfriend was located in Massachusetts. I was living in New Jersey. And we were both tired of driving 250 miles for “date night.” After some discussion, we agreed that a mid-point somewhere in Connecticut, and preferably cheap and cheesy where we would play characters in a steamy romance novel, would be best. I found the Milford Motel the way all sexy romance characters find their motels – by Googling “I-95” and “cheesy motel” and “wood paneling.” The Milford was the first hit, and given that it came with a black and white print out coupon advertising a $49.99 rate per night, it won out over less favorable locations.
After battling traffic on I-95 and I-91 respectively, we arrived at The Milford, conveniently located right off the exit from the interstate, a gem tucked in between a Pilot AutoCenter, a Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts and a Penthouse Playmates “boutique.” We were greeted by a mangy grey and white cat seated on a cracked vinyl chair in the inappropriately named reception area. A surly “host” behind bullet-proof glass handed us two faded towels and the giant key to Room 131 where my friend, a son of a Boston cop, informed me that the dents in the door could have only been made by a cops’ baton during some sort of raid.
Inside wasn’t much better. One light hung over a busted table with two faded chairs, and the bed, barely larger than a twin, had a scratched formica headboard, two deflated pillows, one flat sheet and a bedspread that looked eerily similar to one my parents had donated to Goodwill in 1980. My friend and I looked at each other, and immediately burst out laughing. We threw our provisions – iPod, beer, and candy – on the table and headed out for our planned date of Mexican food and bowling.
At El Torrero, Milford, CT’s home of the one-liter margarita, we wolfed down tequila, indulged on empanadas and fajitas, and discussed all the reasons why our previous marriages had failed. I was still smarting from my failure to succeed, and he was still trying to adjust to a life that didn’t include seeing his daughter everyday. The weight of our combined baggage should have dampened the evening, but laughed and talked long after our plates were cleared.
“Did you bring it,” I asked.
“Your playlist? I uploaded the songs last night.”
“Did you listen to any of them?”
“Some. On the way down.”
I held my breath. I have a complicated relationship with my playlists, and am constantly revising the soundtrack to my life, depending on my moods. As a “mix-tape junkie,” when I make a mix for someone, I spend hours pouring through my music library, selecting only songs that mean something to me and tell the story of the mix-receiver and I. The final playlist I had presented to my friend had been revised six times after deliberate and methodical consideration and included a careful selection of songs that didn’t mention anything about dating, or worse, being a boyfriend. They were all “getting to know you” or “missing you” songs with a few classics thrown in for good measure – if asked, I could always say they were representations of a certain time in musical history.
“I loved it, he said. “Especially ‘Birds and Ships’”
“Oh, I love that one too. It’s a Woody Guthrie song. Wilco and Billy Bragg recorded it for a collection they did of his previously unreleased stuff.”
“That line, “Where might my lonesome lover be,” he paused, and looked at me.
“Yeah.” I could feel myself reddening and looked away, swigging happily on my tequila.
We sat in silence for a bit longer, making eye contact every once in a while, blushing and glowing, before heading back to the motel.
On the rock-hard, scratchy bed, we lay side by side, headphones on, listening to my playlist. Earlier in our not-quite relationship, we had discovered how well we slept together, how our various limbs fit together like puzzle pieces, and I rolled over onto my side, letting him spoon me. Bob Dylan sang about leaving me lonesome when I go, and a cover of The Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down” rang softly in our ears. At “I’m in love for the first time, this time it’s going to last,” I smiled and grasped his hand, while he snuggled in closer. And then “Birds and Ships.”
I stared at the wood paneling, feeling like I was having some sort of out of body experience. I was deeply drunk, and the room rocked slowly as my thoughts fired away in rapid, cannon-fire progression, carefully cataloging my good luck, followed by “this is crazy” followed by “what’s next” and then “I am probably going to fuck this up too.” I have always wanted to turn my brain off for just five minutes, if only to appreciate the silences in moments like these.
“Where might my lonesome lover be?” came through the headphones.
I realized that the back of my neck was wet, and I reached up to touch my friend’s face, wiping away his very quiet tears. My inner monologue finally shut up.
“I am glad I’m here,” I said quietly, into the darkness, still staring at the walls.
I rolled over and buried my face into his warm neck, where I’m told I fell asleep.
* * * * *
We are sitting on the couch. I’m folding laundry and he’s checking the weather on his Blackberry. His daughter is asleep for the night. On the table are various notes about DJs and photographers.
“If I book this guy,” he says, “he just shows up with his speakers and hooks up the iPod. You can do the playlists, right?”
“Ha! Can I do the playlists?” I snort.
He smiles and hits me with a renegade sock.
“Birds and Ships?”
# # #
"Birds And Ships"
The birds are singing
In your eyes today
Sweet flowers blossom in your smile
The wind and sun
Are in the words you say
Where might your lonesome lover be?
Birds may be singing
In my eyes this day
Sweet flowers blossom when I smile
But my soul is stormy
And my heart blows wild
My sweetheart rides a ship on the sea
Though my soul is stormy
And my heart blows wild
Where might my lonesome lover be?