“A History of Early Music”
by John Barker
I wrote her love songs she never heard, with lyrics that would make you laugh. This is how one of them started:
and then something along the lines of “If you ever left me, I would take you back.” I chose the key of D because I was young, and too sophisticated at that time for the key of C, yet still unpretentious enough to avoid A-flat. A-flat came much later.
I first saw her in Grade 9 music. She played the flute, so sat in the front row. I, well, I didn’t play anything sexy. No French horn, no trumpet, no trombone. And no sax, please. You get assigned an instrument in high school band. They take your wishes into consideration, but there are always more kids trying to be Miles Davis than there are Harry Goodman or Walter Page. It was strictly the back row for me.
Over the course of the first couple of weeks in September, I realised she was in several of my classes: History, Geography, Math, Music and French. By October, I was so smitten that when I saw her walking down the hall, I’d become breathless, and have to sit down and place my books on my lap to conceal the boner she gave me. Shit. I knew I was blushing. She knew I knew she knew I had a boner. It couldn’t have gotten much worse. You start with the Special Theory of Self-consciousness “she knows, and only she knows” then quickly move to the General Theory: Everyone Knows. And as if the injustice of your swollen phallus weren’t enough, the awareness of its obviousness, you would think, would make it shrivel into its most diminutive form, but damn it, at that age, in that place, in those circumstances, it became the most powerful boner I think I’ve ever had a Man of STEEL boner, the ramrod-est of rods anyone had ever seen, or would likely ever see. A couple of years later, a bit older, the absolute enormity and pride taken in such a boner could drive you to write songs in D-flat, or even F-sharp minor. Harmonic minor as well. Or maybe Phrygian mode. A boner like that makes atonal music a possibility.
But that day, in that place, with hormones coursing through my most musical veins, I could hear nothing but the siren screech of my voice cracking as she walked by and I managed to squeak out something like a soprano “Hi.” Shit. Shit. Shit. Betrayed again. It’s as if the blood rushing to my member constricted my throat in a direct but inverse proportion. The bigger the dick, the wimpier the voice. Big. Wimp. There you have it. I need say nothing more. And I didn’t. Not for the rest of the school year.
During summer vacation, I would find any excuse I could to bike or walk past her house, hoping to steal a glance. Once, I encountered her on the street. We actually spoke. She said “Hi,” and I said “Hi” back, my voice more firmly anchored in the lower register than it had been before. She asked me how my summer was going. I said “Fine” and asked about hers. We didn’t really know what to say, and smiled and giggled awkwardly for a minute or two before she said, “I have to go now,” and, back toward me as she headed into her house, with a bright smile that made her eyes narrow and nearly disappear, “See you in school.” After that, I went home and wrote a song in A-major, one of the happiest keys, that started:
By the start of Grade 10, I was just as obsessed with her, which my schlong continued to announce, like some great SHE-detector, even when I wasn’t consciously aware she was in the vicinity. That was the year, the Year-Of-All-Years, when they made us, in gym, do a mixed dance unit. The movable wall was pulled back, and girls and boys shared the same space. She and I were paired. There was no way out. Me, in my shorts, touching her hand, the nakedness of her thighs below the elastic cuff of her bloomers filling my vision, when, there IT was, poking out in front of me. As we moved, the shorts rode up. My jock strap couldn’t even contain it and somehow it managed to work its way out. Yes, it reared its head, my guided missile, seeking her. I stared at myself in utter disbelief. “Here she is,” it seemed to be saying to me. “Go! Now! Go! Now!” She stumbled slightly when she noticed it, then looked me straight in the eyes, and I at her. She was as red as I must have been, but asked me, quietly, in an amazingly nonchalant tone that I’ll never forget, if I wanted to “fix things.” I did want to fix things. I wanted to take her there on the floor. Instead, I excused myself as I quick-stepped into the change room. I think the gym teachers must have taken notice as well. There was some quiet discussion between them. That was the last dance unit that year, or ever in that school again, as far as I know. After that, she began approaching me, and we managed to sit closer in classes than we had previously. Except in Music, where I was still, and would always be, in that back row, longingly fixing my gaze in her direction. From that vantage point, I could see her ponytail, the sweet, graceful curve of her ear and those tiny birthstone pierced-earrings she wore, and, occasionally, the fingers of her right hand working the keys of her flute.
One gym period a month, in a classroom, we were sex-educated. We learned all about the things we already knew, breasts, sweat, hair in dark places, and dongs, but we actually got to see drawings, cartoon-like, sure, but drawings all the same of male and female genitalia. They were realistic enough for most of us to be reasonably titillated by them. The labia majora and minora, and the theoretical and mysterious clitoris, that tiny magic bulb which, if properly coerced, would make them want you ALL THE TIME. But, of course, the threat of STDs and pregnancy put a damper on things to the point of making you accept your fantasy world over any actual encounter, boner or no boner.
During one sex-ed class, we were given a demonstration of a condom. The awkwardness of Mr. Henry’s explanation, and his lack of facility with the device made us believe he didn’t have a lot of experience with them. We, however, were all encouraged to gain experience, and to that end, were handed a sample. Some were opened right away. Two or three were inflated, tied off, and bounced around the room. They proved to be highly durable balloons. I was impressed. But I tucked mine in my pocket. After school, I moved it to my wallet. My mother never looked in my wallet, but she did clean my room and do the laundry, so the likelihood of her discovering it was minimized by keeping it on me at all times. And, as far as my friends were concerned, it showed a mature sophistication and responsibility to the possibility of spontaneous sex. I was prepared for anything.
By the end of that school year, she and I sometimes lunched together, and I was comfortably included in her circle of friends. We weren’t dating. We weren’t “an item,” but looking back, she probably was desperate at that point for me to ask her out. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I’d seen other guys do it, but I couldn’t find the words, somehow, because “Do you want to go out with me?” was the worst of all possible self-pitying ways of saying it, and”How would you like to go to a movie?” seemed too easily confused with “By what conveyance do you prefer going to movies- car, truck, boat, or airplane?” Every similar phrase could be just as easily confused with some alternate meaning, and confusion had to be avoided at all costs for such an important question. So, I simply solved the problem by not asking her.
That summer, I started taking my dog on regular walks past her house. Although we both lived in the same suburb, Norfolke Place, the subdivision where she lived, was a notch above mine, and the walks to get there seemed quite long. The houses where she lived all had brick facing, two stories, a porch with posts, two front doors, living rooms with bay windows, and two-car garages. Some people even actually did have two or more cars in their driveways. My family was a pretty well established upper-middleclass one. But those houses, in Norfolke Place, newer, more modern, more, well, perfect, just made it obvious there were more barriers standing between us than you might first think. Sure, we went to the same school. But we weren’t really from the same neighbourhood. We didn’t have the same kind of family. Our families didn’t have the same kinds of friends. There was really no way she could actually like me.
Then one Saturday, there she was, washing her father’s car, a big, white Pontiac Parisienne. She was wearing a halter top and cut-off shorts, and was hosing the car, barefoot. I prayed like Job: Oh, Lord, if you can hear me, why are you torturing me this way? My dog, a female beagle my sister named Finah (as in “nothing could be”), had a keen sense of smell, and knew something was not right, and would not settle down.
She stopped hosing, said “Hi,” and walked down the driveway to me. I introduced her to my dog. I gave apologies because I didn’t know why Finah was acting so crazily. The dog was straining on the leash, trying to just get the hell out of there. She said it was probably a racoon or a skunk. They’d been having problems with them lately. This was my one opportunity to casually sit alone with her, and my dog, “Man’s Best Friend” was betraying me like Judas. Suddenly, she pulled hard, and the leash left my hand. I stood there stupidly for a few seconds, just watching Finah running away down the street, while I, eager to stay, was having a hard time ignoring the fact that the dog was almost out of eyeshot. “Well,” I said finally. “I guess I have to go catch her.” I jogged down the block, trying to catch up to Finah, calling after her, trying to get her to pay attention, without success. She ran all the way home.
My frustration was unbearable, so I wrote something in D-minor, an angrier key than most other minor keys combined, that started:
In Grade 11, I was cast in our school’s fall production of My Fair Lady. One of the reasons I auditioned was because she was in the band for the musical. I reasoned we could spend hours together after school and on Saturdays, in rehearsal. In actuality, I rarely saw her in these circumstances, because the band practiced separately from the actors. It wasn’t until the final two weeks before opening night that the band came in and we started putting the whole show together. Those things never go well. The band teacher thinks she’s the director. The director knows otherwise. Egos clash. The first week together is hell. Breaks are frequent.
After My Fair Lady completed its run, we wrote exams, then had a twelve-day Christmas break. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I must have gone to half a dozen parties, most of which involved kids from a wide range of the school society strata, the band kids, the drama kids, the browners, the drinkers, the stoners, and even a few Grade 12s from the tech wing who looked dangerous and so appealed to most girls in the school, and who smoked, drank and tuned their garage band guitars when they weren’t tuning their cars and motorcycles. They had it all.
The season’s summit was New Year’s Eve. And New Year’s Eve was special that year, because the party was at her house. I wore my brand-new Levis and a tight, black, knit sweater that made me look cool, even as I was overheating. She wore a short, tan corduroy jumper with a yellow blouse and sandals that laced up her legs, all the way to her knees. I found those especially compelling. How long did it take to do that? What stopped the laces from sliding down? How tight did they have to be? Did her legs always look that fantastic?
Her parents were at a party downtown. There were perhaps thirty kids in the house, most between sixteen and eighteen. I stayed away from the tech guys as much as possible, and spent most of the night staying close to her. She poured me a rum and coke. I’d never had one before. I don’t think she had either. But it was a festive season, so I downed it quickly. I was thirsty. The house was warm, and the sweater was hot. I had another, and chewed on the ice.
By one in the morning, many had left, and as they did, she reminded them to be careful of the family of skunks that had taken up residence under the back stoop of the house next door. A few kids were drunkenly asleep in the basement, and she and I made rounds through the house checking on them, making sure no one was going to throw up on her mother’s shag rug. We went to her room. We sat and talked. That was when I said the things I’d wanted to say since Grade 9. I had always loved her since the moment I laid eyes on her. I was desperately in need of her. And I started singing I Want to Hold Your Hand, slowly, quietly.
Coke has a tendency to make me gassy. I’d had plenty by that point, and could feel the pressure building. But that didn’t stop me from forging ahead. She reached over, and took my hand, and placed it on her thigh as she leaned in to kiss me- that first, wonderful, glorious kiss. And my penis, flag-pole rigid, pressed uncomfortably against the stiff denim of my brand-new jeans. Wisely or not, I had also decided to go commando that night.
She saw me squirm, looked down at me, smiled again. Her cheeks flushed. Awkwardly, we slid down on the bed, getting more horizontal. This was the most I’d made out in my life, and the nervousness of the situation, and all that gas, was making my intestines particularly angry. So how, I thought, am I going to deal with this without destroying the moment?
She undid the straps on her jumper, and opened her blouse. She let me slide my hands up between her legs. She paused, and asked if I was okay. Sure, sure. I said. Just too much coke. We pressed our lips together again. A moment later, she stopped again. Asked me if I had any, you know, protection.
Oh my God. This was it. This was going to be the moment. This was going to be the fulfilment of my manhood’s destiny. And did I have a condom? Hell, yes! Thank God for Grade 10 sex-ed. Sure, it had been in my wallet for more than a year, but I had one. I reached into my back pocket, and took out my wallet. The twisting action put pressure on my abdomen in a way I hadn’t expected.
She began to fumble at the button and fly of my Levis. As she unzipped me, unleashing my manhood, I tore open the condom’s wrapper.
The smell was like a stink bomb went off. Oh my God! It’s gone bad! I didn’t know condoms could go bad. How does rubber go bad? Was this a condom from a joke shop? Was this Mr. Henry having a cruel prank? Where was the teaching moment in that? She drew back, covered her nose with the hand that seconds ago was nearly holding my penis. No, wait. It wasn’t the condom. That was me! I didn’t actually let one drop, did I? How could I? I didn’t feel any relief. But it must have been me. What else could stink so much?
I jumped off the bed. She called after me. I made a hasty retreat down the hall, zipping up as I went, out the front door. She called again. But I was embarrassed and humiliated in a way that trivialized all those moments in gym, every last one of them as miniscule as dust mites in the ecology of self-loathing that was growing inside me.
The cold night air hit my face. And so did that stink-bomb smell. Did it follow me? How could it be worse outside? It wasn’t until I was well down the street, well on my way home, like Finah off her leash, that I knew that the neighbourhood skunk had let fly. It wasn’t me at all. I, in my haste, had come to the wrong conclusion, and wasted my one and only chance at true satisfaction.
The next day I wrote, in the unsophisticated key of C, my song of loss, my ballad of mourning that began:
Although I saw here often the rest of the year, I never really spoke to her again, nor did I in Grade 12. We met at the grad, and I managed to be a bit philosophical about the whole thing, and I might even have apologised for the way I reacted, and I might have blamed it on the rum, too. That might just be my faulty memory playing tricks on me. Things I should have said, but never actually did.
After that, we went our separate ways. I wrote dozens of songs as I came to be more at peace with myself and with what happened between us, and began to embrace a wonderful feeling of being at-one with the universe. I would study, and live an ascetic life, I decided. I would dedicate myself to my art. I wrote many, many folk ballads in A-flat major during that time.
When I was in my second year at Mill Town University, I took one of Dr. Montgomery’s English Lit courses, and she was there, in the class, near the front. I don’t think she recognised me. But as I sat, at the back of the room, watching her take notes, I noticed she still wore those same birthstone earrings. Her hair was an off-blond, mousy colour, no longer in a ponytail. Her eyes were smallish, and not particularly bright. Her voice, a bit too high-pitched, and a bit raspy, was not in the least enchanting. Her fingers, while slender, were not elegant. Her name was Lynne. She was just an average girl, from an average family, in an average town. I could no longer see in her anything special. And yet, I loved her still.
If only I’d had the nerve to sing even one of those songs I wrote to her, even one verse, one chorus, or just one line. What the hell was I thinking?