I find out through a music blog that my old pal DV has a show booked in the city, and I message him right away. He texts right back, for him, late the next week. Devin my man it’s been a minute. You’re on the list. The last time DV had been in New York I hadn’t been able to get into the city; we’d just adopted Nico. Now the baby’s almost two and I can get out once in a while as long as we plan it right.
The day of the show, I have to stay late for a faculty meeting. My colleagues discuss minutia with excruciating thoroughness while I shift in my seat. I race home. Kai, the sitter, is feeding Nico. I give the baby a kiss, wipe his sticky applesauce off my lips, shrug out of my work clothes. After a full day of teaching, the sofa is inviting. But I rally; I’ve been looking forward to the show, to DV. He’d been looking kind of rough the last time I’d seen him. I hope he’s gotten shit together.
I drive down the West Side, experiencing a nostalgic hum of expectation at being out at night in the city. On into Brooklyn, where I circle for parking. When I’d lived here, the streets were always empty. I wonder whether DV will think fatherhood has altered me. Forty-one, but I still have my long hair, I eat healthy, keep fit. I buzz in at the tall concrete building and it’s three long flights up to a metal door. Inside, hiply-dressed people mill around in front of a cage of a box office.
“Guest list,” I say to the young guy in the cage.
“No, your name,” he says.
“It’s Devin Myles,” I say.
“Is this a joke?”
“No man, I’m a friend of DV’s. We have a similar name.
We met in the principal’s office, the first day of school. There had been a mix-up; he, DeVon Miles, a fourth grader, had been assigned to a third-grade class. I, Devin Myles, belonged in third but had been sent to fourth. Sitting on hard wooden chairs in a corner of the office, we whispered while the paperwork was corrected. We liked the idea of another person with the same name, a mirror self. He and I gravitated toward each other on the playground whenever our two grades were out at the same time. We both liked video games and skateboarding; we were each “only” kids with one white parent. He went by DV; he called me “Little Dev” because I was younger, though even then I was taller.
Our parents worked and were out all day. We’d hang out at whichever home had the better snacks, usually his place, since my mom was a nutritionist. In any case, his house was nicer, one of those grand Victorians with curlicues and bright-painted trim and a million rooms. DV’s family had moved up from the city that summer. His dad was a doctor; his mom, an artsy type, opened one of those little Main Street boutiques the tourists love. DV was pissed at his parents for making him leave the city and his friends, though he soon had more friends than I’d ever had, and I’d lived here since I was a baby. We spent our afternoons zapping demons on his new PlayStation 2, or out in the street, rolling on boards or bikes. He was the more daring, first to try a new bike route, skateboard trick, and later, smokes, beer, graffiti. I envied his confidence and followed, with a glance over my shoulder.
DV couldn’t wait to get out of our town; he called it Whoville, like in the Dr. Seuss book. “I need to be where more is going on.”
“You mean, to go back to the city?”
“Nah. Maybe Japan, Europe. I don’t know. I go forward, not back.”
Actually, I loved our town. I played town rec t-ball and soccer with kids I’d known since preschool; we marched in parades down Main Street for Memorial Day, sweating in stiff polyester band uniforms while our parents clapped from folding chairs at the curb along the route. On Halloween, all the stores decorated and gave out candy. Families and groups of friends devised insane costumes for the Halloween parade. DV and I coordinated—he was Batman, I, Robin; he was a hamburger, I, ketchup. One year we switched identities. To mimic each other’s hair would have been impossible, so we shoved his crunchy curls and my straight mop up inside identical baseball caps. Wearing DV’s cargo shorts and t-shirt, his leather bracelet and Cons high-tops, I found myself bopping down the street with his signature bounce, while he perfectly mimicked my casual slouch.
The new skate park became our second home. It was set in the lower section of the leafy town park, with a clear view of the river. One day we’d been skating from the moment school ended, a whole golden afternoon of flying together, our wheels singing. The sun had begun to set. Pools of shade spread dark and deep beneath the big trees. A shadow twin lurked under each piece of playground equipment. The kids that had been rolling with us all afternoon peeled off one by one, home for dinner, or to hang on a corner with others who had no particular dinner to go to; one or two of the older ones headed out to part-time jobs. The playground to our left emptied and passed into dark. DV and I skated and skated and then I rolled to a stop. I looked down at the slate-colored river, the ripple and swell of it. Big rocks along the shoreline and a family of ducks bobbing. A cool breeze came up off the river and ruffled the hair at the back of my neck. The sun focused down to a narrow orange eye zapping rays of yellow and gold that bounced off the Hudson in long glints. I glanced up and saw DV, at the far side of the skate park, smoking a cigarette and gazing out. “Nice, huh?” I called.
“What?” he said.
“The river, man. We’re lucky, right?” At that moment, as we both looked out, I felt as close to him as if we were sitting right next to each other, the long concrete ramps, the distance between us, nothing. DV shook his head. “I was looking at the bridge.” I looked back at the sweep of the span, arcing south before it veered back towards Westchester, all lit up to show the way out. All the red taillights leaving Rockland.
“Sorry, sir. I don’t have you on my list,” says the box office guy. Is that a smirk?
“Are you sure? Devin Myles?”
He shakes his head, lips pursed.
“Can you call DV? Or his manager, Ellen?” Was she even still his manager?
“Can you please step to the side a moment so I can help these other folks,” he says, with excessive politeness. I move aside and a young couple takes my place at the window.
In middle school I developed a secret crush on DV, although to tell the truth I didn’t know if I wanted him or wanted to be him. Luckily, I soon discovered my first boyfriend, which saved us from potential awkwardness. When I finally came out to DV it wasn’t a big deal. He was straight, as far as I knew, and spent time with the prettiest girls in school but no one owned him. I was quiet in those years, but DV, still a grade ahead of me, had gotten in with a group of tough guys. He could be kind of a jerk when he was hanging out with his older friends, ignoring me in the halls, teasing me about my band uniform, getting into some stupid shit that got him sent to detention, but he also saved me a couple of times. When I was dumped by that first boyfriend, DV comforted me. “No shit man, you are awesome. You’ll find someone better.” And when some assholes started ragging on me, saying “That’s so gay,” with knowing looks in my direction, DV shut them down.
In DV’s eighth-grade year, his dad died of a sudden heart attack. Dr. Miles had been a respected doctor and a contributor to the community. The local paper ran a two-page obituary detailing his rise from poverty, his emigration to the US, where he’d worked three jobs to put himself through school, his stellar professional career, his charitable work on behalf of his native Haiti. It mentioned that he was survived by his wife Corinne (but said nothing of their recent separation), and one son, DeVon. It hit DV hard. He’d come over and we’d walk, down to the park, or all the way up Broadway to the craggy path that led down along the river. DV’s dad had set high standards for him, and he felt he’d never lived up. My own dad had died when I was young. I somehow figured out what to say. “He was tough because he loved you, man. You don’t have to see him to feel that.”
By high school I cast off my anonymity. A musical polymath, I was a band teacher’s dream—though I’d trained on cello and sax, I could fake it on pretty much any instrument. I saved more than one performance by filling in, though officially I was only in Band and Jazz Combo. DV hung out with different sets, art students, theater kids, a bunch of older guys into the Metal scene in town. But we were still tight. We even had a band together for a couple of years, Miles & Myles. He was on synth; I played guitar and acted as lead vocalist. DV didn’t sing, but even then, he had that lead-singer charisma, a persona and high style, with his billowy ‘fro and tight gymnast’s body, a kind of glow he gave out. The kids loved his inventiveness, our sense of play, my nimble riffs. We’d feel a true high after our shows. Packing up, or hanging at the American Dream Diner for a bite after the show, DV would talk about playing bigger venues, maybe the city. He knew a guy whose friend worked with a promoter, maybe they’d put us on a bill. We’d get a van and tour, “Get the hell out and have a look around,” DV said. But we never got it together and then we graduated.
The Master of the Box Office admits the couple that had been behind me in line. Telling myself that I shouldn’t feel wounded and forgotten, I move up to the window and cough up the twenty-five-buck admission. I’m directed to another steep staircase up which ends in a small vestibule with exposed brick walls. A girl with cherry red hair and an armful of programs tells us to wait, the company is still setting up. “Unless you’re on the guest list,” she adds. “Those on the guest list can enter right now.” Three people brush by me and go in.
I was waitlisted at Berklee. U of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music had a strong department with the option of a music education track, which I added, upon being strongly urged by my mom. After college I came back downstate and lived in a shared apartment in Williamsburg. I played bars and coffee houses solo, and local dives with two different indie bands, each with its own small cadre of dedicated fans. I busked in the subway one winter. I gave guitar lessons and took other random jobs to supplement, and waited for one of my gigs to click, my career to take off.
DV got a full scholarship to Cal Arts and went off to make weird sounds in a setting which, the one time I visited, had the kinetic creativity of a Burning Man festival. He left school after a couple of years to do his thing. Based near LA, he became a solo artist, playing small venues up and down the West Coast. Then his career seemed to catch on; he started getting gigs in other cities, Chicago, Atlanta, even New York.
When he had a New York show, I’d go, to the loft in an industrial neighborhood of Queens or the seedy club on Attorney Street. I couldn’t wait to see which DV he’d be—he developed a different persona for each trip, shifting through hair styles and costume changes. The music changed too; one time he’d have all the newest tech and the next he’d be performing on a vintage Moog, an old boxy Hammond organ. And he did vocals—I regretted that he’d never sung in our high school band because he had a resonant, memorable voice. He was truly experimental; he didn’t wait till a piece was perfected but just put it out there. DV loved the improvisational, the serendipitous, the interaction of the emerging piece with the now. Most times he pulled it off. Music bloggers and zines started to cover him. “Do you consider your work to be hip hop, jazz, experimental, avant-garde?” they’d ask. “Naaah, man,” he’d drawl, “it’s just music.”
Soon, his shows merited larger and tonier venues—a barge on the Hudson, a millionaire’s penthouse. DV travelled in the circles of the better-known forward-thinking. He collaborated with dancers, singers, playwrights and poets, but never with me, to my tender annoyance, unjustified, because our musical styles had diverged, but still a sore spot—at many a show he’d be working with a guitarist I could’ve played rings around. After the show I’d go out with DV and his posse and the conversations I got to listen to were amazing, like a second show for me. Sometimes someone would be polite and ask where I’d been gigging. “Lately? Mongrels, The Lizard Room, California Pete’s…” “California Pete’s?” someone would reply. “I played there back in the day. Fuckin’ dump!” I may have been hanging in there as a musician, but DV was living the life.
The day I turned twenty-eight, my mom sent me a notice of a job as a music teacher at Edward Hopper, my old middle school. Both bands I’d been playing with had recently broken up. I was tired of hustling gigs for applause but no coin, tired of living with increasingly immature, inconsiderate, and progressively younger roommates, even bored with the social scene. When I started at Hopper, I was the youngest teacher in the school. Teaching was a challenge, paperwork, rules; I was supposed to manage pre-teens at the most hormonal, volatile time of their lives. On the plus side, I got my own decent-sized place in town, a three-room apartment for less than I’d paid for my minuscule room in the city, and connected with a group of new friends. I even played music weekly, at a local jazz club’s open mic.
DV’s career kept going. Summers, he toured Europe with an experimental music festival. When he came through New York, I’d take the train in to catch his show. “We have to catch up, man,” he’d say. “Can’t believe you’re back at fucking Hopper. A teacher! Wow!” “Come up any time, open invitation,” I told him. But then someone else would command his attention and that was that. I dreamed about his drafting me to play on one of his projects, but it never happened. Out at cafes and clubs after the show, I had even less to say to his friends than I had when I lived in the city.
My town’s cool but I doubt I’d have stayed this long if I hadn’t met Tyler. He opened his wine bar on River Street a few months after I moved up; I went there one evening and Tyler and I immediately felt a chord. Six months later he asked me to move in. It seemed too soon; also, he was ten years older. But love won. I moved into the tiny house he was renting on the river then, our little nest, and we’ve been together ever since.
For DV, things seemed to go south. The New York gigs were farther between and booked in smaller, seedier clubs. The last show I got to, DV was playing cover songs of eighties pop hits, in a black cowboy hat, studded belt and bolo tie. He’d gotten very thin. He wore a long-sleeved hoodie in the midst of a summer heat wave, and slurred long, vague stories into the mic. He still gave me the big hello but was cagey about what he’d be doing after the show. Then there was a long gap where he didn’t come back East at all. My mother spoke to his mom on the phone; they’d kept in touch, on and off, all those years, even though Corinne had moved away when DV went to college. She mentioned that DV was living in Las Vegas with a wealthy older woman, acting as a sort of companion. She hadn’t seen him in ages; she missed him.
That was about the time Ty and I started talking about adopting. I was hesitant. Things between us were great. We’d rescued a floppy-eared mutt and I’d thought that was enough. Tyler thought we should start looking into it; who knew how much time it might take? His wine bar was doing well, my job was tenured and secure, he wasn’t getting any younger. We put a down payment on a bigger house in town and started investigating options. By the next time DV was in town, I was a dad.
After almost two years off the grid, DV booked a comeback show out in LA, at a tony old-school cabaret. Performing in the persona of an aging crooner trotting out all the old standards, he played selections of his own older work. Some music blog covered it as this genius of the avant-garde coming out of seclusion. The critic lauded DV’s inventiveness and range through the years, and gave an appreciative wink to the sly self-parody of the act. On the strength of that publicity, DV booked a national tour, first stop New York.
More and more people are coming up the steps to crowd into the little vestibule. I shrink against the brick wall and check my phone. It’s a text from Ty with a video of Nico in the bath. Our kid is so damn cute. The redhead finally opens the door and we squeeze into the room, a black box theater. All the good seats are taken except one, in the front section roped off with a purple ribbon. I make for it but the usher in the aisle shakes her head. Guest list only. Of course. I climb to the back row, duck my head under a protruding pipe and wedge myself into the one available seat. The view turns out to be okay, if I hunch and keep my head turned slightly.
The show is good; actually, great. DV does the cabaret character for the first act, swanning around in a silver lamé jacket and then, after a short intermission, some cool electronic stuff in a changing light-scape of blues and greens and flashes of video, like vague thoughts or half-visions. When he’s done the audience springs to its feet, applause echoing off the concrete walls. He bows once and walks off. We all wait. After a several minutes, DV emerges from the wings in sneakers and a grey sweatshirt. He walks to the front of the stage, and stands in a small circle of white light. He starts slowly and builds, a haunting twenty-minute chant, backed only with a beat box, that dissipates to soft mutters and finally, silence. There’s a moment in which the audience doesn’t move, and then a burst of wild applause. People walk out quiet, with the dazed expressions of those who know they’ve seen something memorable. DV was amazing. The energy, the concentration you need to perform with that intensity.
It’s like teaching, how you have to be on from the moment the kids walk in. My job is actually okay. Of course, there are the annoyances—faculty meetings, early practices, paperwork, official crap. But my schedule meshes well with Ty’s later one; we each get time with the baby and only need part-time child care (and for fill-ins, my mom helps out, thrilled to find herself a grandmother when she’d given up hope). My principal is open to innovative programming and loves the arts. And the kids are terrific, so smart, funny, full of potential. It’s an awkward age but they’re rocking it. I love that moment when they click, go past playing the notes to making music; that connection when everyone realizes we’re all together in one big vibration, this flow.
I wait around with maybe twenty other people from the audience after the show to say hello. DV finally comes out from the back and is immediately surrounded. When most of them are gone I walk over. He looks over the head of the girl he’s talking with and throws up his hand for me to bump like when we were kids. “Devin, my man, come here. This is Simone, this young lady is Astrid. And the dude over there is Heinz, we’re all talking about doing a thing. Guys, meet Devin, my friend from way back. He knew me before I was me.”
“Yeah, if we’re such great friends,” I give him shit, “you’d think I’d be on the guest list!”
“Fuck me, did that not work out? I thought I told…so how’d you get in?”
I rubbed my fingers together.
“You had to pay? Sorry man. I owe you fifteen bucks.”
“Twenty-five,” I say, keeping it going. Despite our lives on polar coasts, the years since we’ve been together, we slide into our old banter, its affection and edge.“So how you doing, man?”
“Alright. And you, still a teacher? And you’re a daddy now, right?”
I’d messaged DV to invite him up to our place, to meet the new baby, when he was in New York two years earlier. He was in for a show and couldn’t fit in a trip upstate to visit. But he did send a gift, a cute rainbow teddy bear, from Europe that summer. I have my phone ready to show off the video of Nico but he says, “Hey we’re going out. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I hate to admit it, I’m dragging; I’ve been up since six. Plus, it’s a school night and I have a forty-minute ride home, best-case, no construction on the bridge.” He’s not persuaded. “These folks are cool; we met in Iceland; they’re fun and smart. Besides, this is my last New York gig for a while. I’m doing a Europe thing.”
“It sounds great,” I say, and mean it, but shake my head. “Next time, for sure.” The truth is, I’d rather get home to Tyler and Nico. He looks in my eyes, and he’s quiet for a beat. Close-up, there are new lines around his eyes, a strong vertical crease between the brows. He’s still thin, but not as skeletal as the last time I saw him. The ropy muscles have softened, and a little belly rounds over his thick black studded belt. There’s a grayish cast to his skin, but he doesn’t look unhealthy now, only too much time indoors, too many late nights.
“Devin?” he says. “Rachel’s gone. She left, man.”
Rachel? I thought he’d been with a Jen last time. But he looks sad, so I give him a clumsy hug. “I’m sorry, DV.” He grabs and gives me one hard, quick squeeze, then one last try. “A drink for old times’ sake?”
I never did find it easy to say no to DV. Which is why I find myself crammed in a corner booth with him, the Iceland contingent, some side musicians, a roadie, and a slight grey-haired guy who turns out to be the new tour manager. They’re all scarfing down tapas, plates full of salty fish in oil, some kind of mushroom thing, olives as big as golf balls, an eel dish, with hard crusty bread, washing it all down with huge draughts of wine. Despite the din reverberating off the tin ceiling, they’re in an animated discussion of the new tour they’re planning, which will fuse American soul and electronics with traditional Icelandic folk music. As usual, I’m an audience of one, the fly on the wall. I feel the weight of the day in the back of my neck and my shoulders, and a pull in my center toward home, Nico, and Ty, our cozy bed. I’m kind of drifting off when I hear DV’s voice cutting through the clamor. “My man Devvy can do it. How about it, Little Dev? Up for a road trip?” Turns out they can use an American guitarist, someone versatile enough to handle the soul riffs and insert some cutting-edge guitar/electronic interface; a sort of condiment to the main course of the music.
The European tour is set to begin in May, a month before the end of my school term. It will run through the summer, playing medium size concert halls, festivals, and the like. I answer automatically. “Can’t, DV. I’ve got a job. I have a kid.” But he coaxes. “Come on man, it’s going to be amazing. We’ll have a luxury bus, get a chance to see the sights between gigs. Your job will let you off, right? And your partner can watch the kid. Heinz here has a family. He doesn’t let it get in the way of his music.” I can picture it, the sleek tour bus wending down picturesque roads through quaint towns, into hip cities. The food, the sights, the conversations. And the crowds, all up for the show, moving to the beat, singing along; the energy, the tremendous rush. Like what I’d known, but on a scale I’d never known it. And I’m calculating. Can I add up all my unused vacation days and leave school early? Could my mom be drafted to help with Nico? And Ty, he’s used to being on his own. He’d get by. But I know it’s a fantasy. What about the Spring Concert I’d planned, the fun rock medley I’d put together for the band to take on? And Nico; what changes would I miss out on? Would he be talking more when I got back; would he have grown a size? And wouldn’t he miss me? Not to mention Ty. So I shake my head. “Think about it and get back to me,” DV says. “But don’t wait too long.” They’re planning on going out to a club, but I beg off.
“No worries,” he shrugs. “Great to see you man. Miles & Myles, forever, right? Great to see your face.”
We all walk out together. We hug, a real one. Then, I head down the street to my car and he goes the other way, one arm draped around the tall blonde woman, the other, the brunette.
It must have rained when we were inside; awnings are dripping and the city street gleams as if it’s been polished. Every streetlamp is haloed in mist. Of course, there is construction on the bridge. I inch across. The whole way I’m thinking about the show, our conversation. Second-guessing it, thinking about what it would be like to live that life.
On the parkway north, fog is rolling in from the river; I’m caught in a net of cloud. In less than a mile, visibility is nil; my headlights illuminate only white. I’m driving blind, unsure what’s the road, what’s the shoulder. I creep around a curve and spot, way off, the sparks of a pair of taillights ahead of me, going slow, but going. Showing me the way. I keep pace, trailing his sparks of red for the ten miles to my exit.
I get home after two, let myself in, and peek in at Nico, tiny fingers clutching Gabby Giraffe. Tyler’s been home from work for a while. He’s in bed with the light on and a book in his hands but his eyes are closed. He hears me moving around and opens them and I lean in.
“You smell of smoke,” he says.
“Not smoke, just the city. I’ll wash up.”
In the bathroom, I catch a glimpse of myself, the tired eyes, the lines starting to etch themselves around my mouth. A middle-aged middle school teacher, not the guitar star I once thought I’d be. I shower and towel off and climb into bed with Tyler. Our bodies reach for each other, breathe each other in.
“How was it?” he asks. “You’re home late.”
“Good. And actually, this is early; they were going out to a club. But I was beat.”
Tomorrow after work maybe I’ll get the guitar out, play some with Nico. The last time I did it, Nico started to sing–at two, he can actually carry a tune– and clap his sticky hands; my kid’s my best audience. When Nico’s older, I’ll teach the kid to fly, like we did, at the local park; I’ve even saved my old skateboard. I’ll get back to playing at the local jams again, maybe get together a band. But no rush. With Nico and Ty, I have such joy I sometimes overlook it; that’s how much I’m blessed. To want anything other than this would be crazy. Right?