I love every version of this song I’ve ever heard, but it’s this one that’s haunting me this week.
It isn’t even my favorite.
It hits me at every age, but it reminds me of one short span of hours, one night. It feels like another life entirely.
I can’t sing any more.
It isn’t a matter of trying, or wanting to. It’s a matter of can’t. It’s a matter of loss, and a loss I still grieve enough I barely let myself think about it.
But that night, I was singing. I was fifteen.
That night, it was Becky’s birthday. Our basement band piled together — Bill had snatched me up from school a class before the day was out, and it was the first time I’d cut class.
I waited for the crowd to go, knowing the Vice Principal would chase them down. I walked right out to Bill’s car while he ran after them along the football field, toward the park. It was just that easy, the last few hours of what I’d never thought to think of before as a charmed life.
Beth was furious that I’d be the one singing; especially singing one of her songs.
She’d trained, formally. She had worked for it in ways I hadn’t, not really.
A friend of my mother’s had offered tips here and there, but ultimately even she knew that my voice was a strangely untamed thing that did whatever it damned well pleased based on whatever was in me at the time. Meanings mutated and impact shifted; it was never the same twice. No matter how carefully I practiced, my voice was always naked. (Maybe that’s why it’s broken, now. I know it isn’t, but escaping that thought is harder than I like.)
Bill was the boss, and Bill said I would be singing. We piled from his basement to Beth’s, Bill, Beth, Dave and me.
Becky had been through so much — too much — and we did what we could to make that birthday something better.
As much cruelty as we had all managed to get through at that point in our lives —
It was all of us. The theater kids, the art kids, the gay kids, the funny-looking ones and the ones that didn’t fit the square holes our round shapes were being slammed into, or vice versa.
— her life was different, and we all understood it intuitively.
No one had to tell us.
In these days of performative, crusading empathy, I struggle inside when I think of fifteen-year-old me, and how we all simply knew.
The night we became a trio instead of their duo was on the back stairs of the Drama League — such an amusingly appropriate name, in retrospect — on the way up to the costume loft. Something had hit a nerve with Becky, and she couldn’t speak. She sat on the steps shaking, and in the quiet backstage, we held on to her tightly from either side.
She didn’t have to speak.
Our cues came and went, and we ignored them.
We heard them. We just didn’t care.
I don’t know how long we were there, but we got the lecture from Suzy — the director — when we finally made it out again, about how the performance was paramount, and we could never do that again.
I think that might have been the moment I learned to embrace the calm ‘fuck you’ of personal bearing.
Try me, bitch.
I’d do the same again, every time. It’s not even a question.
We did everything fifteen-year-olds could: the band, pizza, a sleepover of all the theater crowd (which warrants an entry of its own, some day), ridiculous horror movies, and all of us laughing and crying like no one was watching, even in the grip of teenage too-aware-of-the-audience-ness.
All of us loved her. We didn’t have the words for it, so we fashioned an awkward embrace out of all of those things that made childhood idealism out of the simple pleasure joys we understood, in hopes she would understand the meaning behind it all.
I like to think she did.
(I can feel the thrum of the music through my cup on the desk.)
I almost never slept, back then. Maybe that’s why Dave and I went walking impossibly late through Beth’s upper middle class neighborhood, tentatively breaking the quiet as we sang favorite things the other hadn’t known before back and forth for hours.
You’d think it was romantic, that it was flirting, but it wasn’t.
It was just human, and it was fucking beautiful.
I don’t have words for it beyond that.
In the years since, I’ve had to learn to see things in such a different way than I did that night.
I never wanted to.
He did a stunning rendition of REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, which I’d never heard before, and it’s been one of my favorite songs ever since. It’s also never been as good as — what to me was — the original. I sang one of Eponine’s bits from Les Mis, though I can’t recall which any more.
We laughed. We talked about how much we loved to sing, and how almost no one ever heard us do it. How neither of us knew why the band brought us out with any of it. It didn’t matter, and there was no need to overanalyze any of it to try to puzzle it through.
That was the world, then.
It was beautiful, and I had no idea how fragile or fleeting it was.
I don’t know how many laps we made back and forth along her street, or how long it took us to lose track of time, only that it simply was precisely what it was all the while, with no pressure or want for more, or lack for some hope that it was less than.
It took less than a week for the world to crack after that, and two for it to break completely.
A few years later and Dave was Ryan’s room mate in a turn of purely random chance, the two of them working at the same suburban wasteland pizzeria.
It was three mutually oblivious passings-by before he caught my arm, and a dazed Dave caught my arm, asking, “Eponine?”
So much had happened between then and that middle of the night that it didn’t feel like a few years, but dozens.
It’s been dozens now, but I remember that strange sense of time twisting into a knot like it was yesterday.