I caught Jonathan by the rest room in the Denny’s before we got back in the bus. “So, how long are you along for the ride?”
He gave a regretful shrug. “I have to catch a plane from Charlotte back.”
“So you’ll see the Durham show?”
“Yeah. And then I’ll get out of your hair.” He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I, um, I didn’t really mean to invite myself along, but Carynne kind of made the assumption, and… yeah.”
He got a spot of color on his cheeks.
I thought: And you figured since you’d showed up unannounced already, sticking around for another day or two wasn’t much worse. Right?
I very nearly called him out about it right then and there. I could have at least made him admit he’d flipped the apple cart. I could’ve brought up the whole thing about how we once talked about how I wasn’t comfortable with public displays of affection. But then I realized getting an apology or an admission or whatever wasn’t really that important to me. There was something I would like better and that I wanted more, and that was to make everything okay. I could make him feel okay. I felt like it wasn’t every day I could clearly see a way to make another person happy.
“It’s really, really good to see you,” I said, then, because that was how I really felt. And because I knew it would make him feel better.
His smile was a beacon of relief. “Likewise,” he said, very softly.
If either of us had anything more to say, we didn’t get the chance. Digger came out of the bathroom and Jonathan went in.
Digger fixed me with a look. It looked like a judgmental look. But what he said was, “You doing okay? How’s the eye?”
“I’ll put the drops in when we get back on the road,” I said. “Seems okay.”
“Good.” That was all he said and then he walked away.
The bus ride from there to Durham was six hours and I spent all of them waiting for the other shoe to drop, i.e. for Digger to say something more about Jonathan. But he didn’t.
Courtney and Jonathan spent one of those hours sitting in the front lounge talking about I don’t know what, but she laughed a lot. Then while Ziggy was asleep and Bart started teaching Courtney to play cribbage and Carynne and Digger sat bent over the day book, I sat in the back lounge with Jonathan.
“So you haven’t told me a thing about what you’ve been doing since I saw you,” I said. “Your turn.”
“A writer’s life isn’t that exciting.”
He chuckled. “Well, I did have some fun doing a feature on the political side of rap. So I got to talk apartheid with Chuck D. and censorship with Run D.M.C.”
“See, that’s exactly what that Brown degree is for,” I joked. “Whereas the guy who went to USC probably did a feature on how shallow rap is and it’s all about partying and booty, and got to have a threeway with two Playboy bunnies poolside at an L.A. mansion.”
“You know, that’s dangerously close to reality.” He shook his head like he didn’t want to think about it.
“How’s the novel? How far did you get?”
He shook his head again, self-deprecatingly this time. Or maybe condescendingly. “Oh, D. Writing a novel isn’t like knitting a sweater. I’ve worked on it a lot but I haven’t gotten very far.”
Huh. “Isn’t it?”
“Writing a novel like writing a sweater? I mean, knitting a sweater?”
He shrugged. “Well, maybe it could be, if I didn’t also have to make my own wool as I went along. And some days as I’m knitting I think it’s a scarf and some days it’s a sweater and some days I’m really not sure what it is.”
“Whew, that must be brutal,” I said. Outside the window a lot of trees and billboards were going by. “At least when I write a song I know it’s a song. I mean, it doesn’t always come easily, and some of them go wrong, but at least I always know what it is.”
“I think a song is like a short story, but a novel is more like a symphony, except without the format of a symphony to go on.” Jonathan warmed up to the idea. “Yeah, so a genre novel, is kind of like a symphony where you already know what the instrumentation and structure is. But a literary novel is more like one of those modernist symphony-length work whose instrumentation, structure, and form are completely mutable.”
“Well, except they aren’t,” I pointed out. “I mean, yeah, when you’re figuring out what the piece is going to be about and which instruments to use, but once it starts to take shape the open questions get answered quickly.”
He cocked his head, looking at me. “You sound like you speak from experience.”
“Okay, it wasn’t a symphony, it was a twenty minute instrumental arrangement for a class, but it could have been a two-hour thing if that had been the assignment.” Wow, I hadn’t thought about that class or that music in a long time. I recall liking some of what I wrote. Bart had played on the finished piece. I remember begging him to get the bassoon out. “J. did you ever think maybe the reason you’re stuck is because you’re still spinning the wool and thinking of the book as this… this… infinitely changing thing of infinite potential?”
He blinked at me a little. “Well, like I said, it would be one thing if I were writing a mystery, for example, then I’d have a strict form to follow, and it would be my job to sort of fill it in, just using my characters and my style. But a literary novel, a ‘great American literary novel,’ it sort of has to… veer away from any genre or cliche.”
“Ahhh, yeah.” I nodded knowingly. “You can spend a really long time dodging cliches. I think half the reason what Ziggy and I are writing these days is going so much easier is we stopped fighting them so hard.”
“Really. Because you really can’t avoid them completely, and look, we are still a rock and roll band. Maybe we don’t fit the neat categories that the company wants to put us in, but that just gives us a wider palette of cliches to choose from. We’re not stuck with metal or punk or arena rock. There’s a point at which I was thinking to myself, crap, the entire existence of guitar solos to begin with is a cliche, maybe I should quit doing them.”
“Yes. I mean, obviously I didn’t. But I don’t do them the way Eddie Van Halen does them, you notice. I’ve redefined it for myself. Mine are shorter. Well, except when they aren’t.”
“You’re more in the Andy Summers vein on the record, but not so much live, I notice,” J. said.
“Live performance has a whole different set of… call them cliches if you want but I’ll use the word ‘requirements’ instead. People come with expectations. If you don’t meet those expectations, people are disappointed. I don’t think too many people are walking away from our shows disappointed.”
“So what does the audience for the great American novel want? How can you give them what they want?”
“Um, I think literary writers aren’t supposed to please the audience. We’re supposed to be pleasing some invisible god of art, critique, and comparative literature in the sky.”
“Uh-huh.” I think I could see why he wasn’t getting anywhere, but I decided not to rub it in. I mean, shit. If I wrote worrying about what the critics would think I would be too paralyzed to write anything.
“Hey, can we do a little actual work?” Jonathan suddenly asked, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
“If you want to get some writing done, feel free, we’ve got hours. I could work on lyrics…”
He laughed. “No, no, I mean rock journalism work. How about an actual interview? Want to see if Bart’s up for it, too? Or when Ziggy gets up?”
“Great. Now all of a sudden my trip is tax deductible.” He rubbed his hands together in mock glee. Or real glee, maybe.
I went forward to see if Bart and Courtney were still sucked into playing cards. Ziggy was awake and listening to something on his headphones that had him playing an air piano and mouthing the words while he lay in his bunk.
When he saw me he hit stop. “Looking for me?”
“Yeah. Was that ‘I Would Die For U,’ from Purple Rain?”
His jaw dropped. “How can you do Name That Tune on things you can’t even hear? That’s just… unfair.”
“I read your lips,” I said. “Besides, I saw it in your bag the other day. How are you doing?”
“Pain-wise, you mean?”
“You-wise, I mean.”
He hesitated before answering. “You know, I’m not thinking about anything else but getting through the show tonight. Nothing else is important. I’ll deal with everything else later.”
I nodded. “I feel pretty much the same.” I had kind of wondered if that was why we weren’t having more of a fight about Jonathan. Well, you know, Ziggy can fight without fighting, but I didn’t even feel the hostility I was expecting. It was kind of nice. And it was nice that right now he was putting all the bullshit aside for the sake of doing the thing we were supposed to do. Unlike Chris. Unlike the old Ziggy, for that matter.
I really, really, really… appreciated him at that moment.
“Do you have the strength to get on the clock for a little bit and give Jonathan an interview? You can say no.”
He let out a deep breath slowly. “Yeah, I could talk for a bit. I need a drink anyway. Did you put your antibiotics in yet?”
“Shit, no. I’ll go do that.”
I got the bottle of eyedrops, and went into the head and latched the door behind me. I’m not a religious person. I’m really not. I don’t think I actually believe in god, except as the being that I bargain with at times like this. As in, “dear god, please let it not hurt as much today as yesterday. I promise I’ll do something nice for the homeless animals or something if you just…”
Well, and sometimes miracles do happen. The drops felt irritating but not bang-on-the-bus-wall excruciating. Thank god.
So, no, I don’t believe in god, but I do that anyway. I don’t have to make sense.