Before Durham made all the “Best Place to Live” lists, back when it was a lost, cigarette butt city, I moved there on purpose. Cool people lived in Chapel Hill and the employed, Raleigh. Durham was the halfway house for those of us who didn’t belong anywhere else, the island of misfit toys. A recent philosophy graduate fond of paradox, I found myself seduced by the city’s dueling slogans of “City of Medicine” and “City of Tobacco,” only to immediately regret my decision. The brick exposed warehouses were abandoned caverns of cancer dust. A crack-addled homeless population wandered downtown like the zombie apocalypse. I’d signed my lease sight unseen, only to realize my “room” was the pantry, converted by a greedy landlord so he could increase the rent.
Yes, but have you been to the Bread and Board?, people would ask in all earnestness, as if this hippie lunch spot fixed everything. Yes, I had, but wondered if perhaps I had been to the wrong one, because all I’d seen there were sandwiches. Everyone seemed so adamant I felt that I must go again and so I did, mechanically sipping the thin tomato soup in a bread gourd that lodged in my throat like a maxi-pad.
Directionless and saddled with a pantry that demanded rent, I took a job at the restaurant everyone forgot about, the Mexican place called Papagayo’s, or “the gay parrot.” These were also the days before Durham was a LBGTQ mecca. That the blonde, handsome owner—who had a blonde, handsome boyfriend—was swarmed by single women, provided us a source of consistent amusement.
“How could he be single?” the poofy-haired, strawberry, frozen margarita women swooned.
We the staff shrugged and went back to our mission of helping the public pronounce, “quesadilla.”
At Papagayo’s I was adopted by co-workers Noel & Valerie who saw something in my unformed self, at least that’s what they said. Valerie was older, almost thirty, with long, thick brunette hair and the hips of a future mother. Noel was curly-headed and buoyant with a high, girlish laugh that made you join in even if you didn’t want to. Noel was way hotter than Valerie, his Adonis body in contrast to her Russian peasant ancestry, but he lavished over her, which made him seem intellectual and complex.
Noel & Valerie spooned out praise like warm chocolate and I lapped it up. They had me over for exotic dinners—Moroccan Chicken or Seviche from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Their apartment overflowed with tapestries and third world artifacts. They plated Kroger havarti as if a temple offering. Every time they got up they touched my arm, asked me if I needed anything, if I was okay. This was all impossibly seductive for someone raised on fuzzy toilet seat covers and Spam.
After a few liters of red wine, they would drift into the story of how they met, a Telemundo-worthy affair where Valerie had been living with a sweet, sensible oaf of a man named Paul, but then Noel—irresistible, adorable Noel—had come bouncing into her life, slicing up fajita meat with flair. Poor Paul (poor, poor Paul) had been devastated and the anguish of what Valerie had done to him weighed heavily in her liquid, brown eyes. But Noel & Valerie were a love story for the ages, as proven by the Tom Robbins novels on their bookshelf. Powerless against the emotional tides that drove them, they carried on for a year before the truth of their affair came out in a sordid reveal involving a faulty walk-in lock.
It was terrible, Valerie would say, remorse washing over her face, so terrible, and Noel squeezed her hand.
Deep down, I suspected these people were dicks. At work we made fun of how Noel would stare deeply into your eyes and preface sugary compliments with, “From the bottom of my heart.” But when his gaze locked in, I couldn’t look away. Starved rat terrier for attention that I was, I willingly walked the plank into a black ocean.
One night, a Noel & Valerie dinner ended with the three of us snuggled on the futon reading passages from Jeanette Winterspoon’s Written on the Body. I kept thinking I should leave, this was ridiculous, but as Noel rubbed my feet and Valerie brushed my hair, an early exit seemed premature.
“Have you ever had a massage from a drummer?” Noel asked, holding up his strong, calloused, and admittedly appealing hands. No, I hadn’t, but after a few fishbowls of Concha y Toro Merlot, who was I to refuse? I slipped into a druggy confusion, losing myself in the black and white nude portraits Noel & Valerie had of themselves hanging on the wall, the folded limbs and odd angles tactfully hiding the gauche parts.
Days I hung out with Sponge, who also worked at Papagayo’s. I was Sponge, too. Around noon, once our hangovers had subsided, either he or I called.
“Hey, Sponge,” one would say.
“Hey, Sponge,” the other answered.
Afternoons we toked and napped on the giant, yellow-flowered sofa at my house; our heads like bookends and legs nestled into one another. The sofa sat in front of a great window and the lemony Carolina sun streamed in, warming us, until we had to roust ourselves for work. Because it irritated my housemates, we would let in the neighborhood cat, a black Manx we called Bear.
“I don’t wanna work tonight,” I’d say.
“People are awful. God, I hate people,” he’d say.
One day I saw a tabloid on the floor of continuing education courses offered by Duke University, a Gothic stonewalled place I could only assume was a myth, their dream basketball team like faked landings on the moon or the Spice Girls. Aside from the usual conversational Italian or Great Books offerings, there was one class that had caught my eye for two years now, ever since I’d started at the Mexican restaurant:
“What Are You Going To Do With The Rest of Your Life?”
Instructor: Sharron Ross Ballentine
Who are you? Who do you want to be? This course is for people who are between jobs, starting a new facet of life, or simply looking to make a change. Among other assessments, the Myers-Briggs Type Casting and Strong Inventory will help you determine skills, interests, aptitudes and unique abilities so that you can locate a career that is more than a job, but a vocational identity.
The course was pricey, over a week’s worth of tips, but the expense made it seem worthwhile. You didn’t want to trust your career to someone who couldn’t make money.
“I’m gonna take it,” I said.
“That’s good. You should do that,” said Sponge, shifting so Bear meowed in complaint before settling back down.
Seven people trickled in the classroom, four men, two women and me. Four of the men and one woman were of retirement age, while the other woman was in her thirties, making me the youngest person by fifteen years. I realized this was because everyone my age was at work, and couldn’t attend a class held during the day.
Sharron Ross Ballentine was attractive, but not so attractive as to raise suspicion. We wore plaid shirts and mom jeans, but she was scrubbed and polished for a Wall Street board meeting—all pin stripes and pantyhose. Short hair curled around her chirpy squirrel personage, darting black eyes with very little white.
Sharron zipped around clasping and unclasping her hands, suggesting we go around the room and break the ice by describing ourselves as a fruit. Sweet Jesus, what have I done? I thought. I was going to bolt but then the moment passed and there I was, victim once again to my own apathy. I thought with everyone so much older than me, we’d have nothing in common, but discovered our mutual bond of feeling like washouts transcended the ages.
“I’m here because my wife made me come,” said Ronald, one of the plaid shirt crew. “I was a civil engineer for thirty years. I’m not even sure what happened. But here I am.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, and meant it. I knew exactly what it felt like to work as a civil engineer for thirty years and have no idea why.
That afternoon I retrieved my black pants off the floor and scraped the dried salsa off with a fingernail. I pulled back my hair in the attempt to mask the greasy strands, and rifled my closet for a shirt that wouldn’t get me sent home.
“You’ll come to Noel’s show won’t you? It would mean so much to him,” Valerie said as we scooped chips into wax paper-lined baskets. Noel played drums in an indie rock band called The Iotas. Sure, of course, I would come to his show, as I had a few times now.
“You know,” said Noel, his dark eyes burning as he plated enchiladas, “You could play the drums if you wanted. There’s something about the way you move.”
In response I feigned a bit of The Hustle, courtesy of my sixth grade gym teacher, but Noel didn’t reward me with his infectious laugh.
“You think I’m joking but I’m serious,” he said. “This is something you could do, if you wanted. I’ve got a feeling.”
Noel promised to give me a drum lesson sometime while I tried to pretend I didn’t care if this ever happened.
As with most nights, I wound up halfway through my shift hiding in the walk-in cooler, teary and indignant over some customer who’d yelled about an expired coupon, or the short pour, or the late salsa, or whatever it is people yell at bartenders about. Sponge came after me and we hid from the dark side of humanity.
“I think we should go to France,” he said. “Waiters have more influence there.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said. “I can’t take it.”
“Are you going to Noel’s show?”
“Maybe. Probably.” Sponge pressed his finger into a prepped chimichanga, as if testing for doneness, but really, just to make a dent.
“Poor Paul,” I said to the chimichanga, as this was part of our routine.
“Poor, poor Paul,” he responded.
“You know,” I said, staring deep into his eyes. “There’s something special about the way you poke those appetizers. I really mean it.”
“From the bottom of my heart,” Sponge said.
I pressed my palm to the center of my chest.
The Myers Briggs Test is based on Jungian psychology. There are four pairs of dictomies (Introverted/Extroverted. Sensing/Intuitive. Thinking/Feeling. Judgement/Perception) that mix and match to create sixteen personality types. I filled in the circles with my No. 2 pencil. Was I actual or hypothetical? Real or surreal? Fair or kind? Would I rather direct or act? I was supposed to go with my gut feelings, but I had no idea what my feelings were.
Afterwards, we engaged in Dyads, where we paired off and worked on psychological exercises meant to dislodge our conditioned ways of thinking. The middle woman and I sat face to face, palms on our knees. We were instructed to stare at one another and phrase our dream job in the form of “I am______.”
“Don’t want to be,” said Sharron Ross Ballentine. “BE.”
Perhaps my entire life had been defined by limited thinking. Who knew what could happen if I cast aside the chains of negativity? I was tired of feeling dark and sad all the time. I needed to focus on what or who, I really wanted.
I am Tommy Lee Jones.
My drum kit spins over the arena as my helicopter blade limbs chopped to the roaring crowd. Bulbs flash. Arms reach. After the show I run backstage where Noel catches me and presses me up against the wall, our mouths feeding off of one another as I shimmy my hand to his buckle—
“Is it just me?” my dyad partner hissed. “Or is this class bullshit? I should have taken ceramics.”
Was I adept with the handicapped? A natural facilitator? More of a researcher or a retriever? Could I visually analyze?
“Oh, I am so glad you’re here! Noel will be so excited.” Valerie wore a dark purple tunic and stretch pants with a giant tin neckless like a trash can lid. How Valerie could pull off dressing like a New York hotel heiress I’ll never know.
This wasn’t the first time The Iotas had played the Ninth Street Bakery, a proto-hipster coffee shop that sustained poor artsy Durhamites with its chewy bread. The venue had enough exposed brick to pass for an arts scene and a smattering of friends kept the room from feeling empty. Valerie sat right up front, beaming. Sponge and I scooted towards the back so we could pass a flask of Wild Turkey brought to cut the Ninth Street coffee sludge, a brew infamous for its ability to disembowel the drinker.
“Who names a band The Iotas?” asked Sponge.
“Better that than The Amoebas,” I said.
“What about Nothing? I want to see a band called Nothing.”
“For encores you could shout, ‘Nothing!’ over and over.”
“Think of the swag. T-shirts. Bumper stickers. Or nothing. Just sell nothing.”
“Noel says they’re changing their name to Dogtooth Violet—because it’s the first flower of spring,” I said in a deep, breathy Valerie/Noel voice.
“They could open for Tulip. Or would it be Daffodil?”
The Iotas were the typical mix of four best friends from college who played some house party to more applause than expected, enough to sustain years of bakery gigs. Now their music lived in purgatory. They would never go national, but there was an excruciating maybe present, a sliver of hope in the sort of catchy riffs and almost provocative lyrics. The band also suffered a curse in that the drummer was the only real talent. Noel ripped through the songs with an intense physical focus that flew past the other players and even the songs. His arms chopped like helicopter blades and his bass drum thuds hit your chest, his body vibrating with energetic purpose.
“I suppose you’re staying,” Sponge said, but he paused.
“I might was as well,” I said.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought Sponge should probably be my actual boyfriend, but I suppose I craved a bigger mistake. I was only twenty-three. Shouldn’t I carreen around the ess curves for a while? I hung around after the set and was eventually reward by Noel’s sweaty, tight hug, before losing him to a flurry of adoring students, fans, and his girlfriend.
As the bartender, I closed the restaurant. After my shift, I would wait until the last customer left, lock the door, and head for the kitchen. There, I nuked a huge bowl of queso and returned to the bar for the liquor buffet. Jameson and Kahlua. Galliano and Stoli. B&B and Myers dark rum. I put ten liquors in the blender with a scoop of ice cream and made Bodhisattva Booze Shakes. I squeezed fresh limes for Topshelf Margaritas and held the Cointreau bottle upside down for a five count. I floated grenadine in a shot of vodka so it looked like a miscarriage. I layered Bacardi 151 and set it on fire, keeping the blue-flaming shot glass next to me like a candle. I made drinks from fifties movies. Harvey Wallbanger. Sidecar. Pink Lady. Sometimes I’d shake and stir and blend only to pour my efforts out and start over.
I sat at random tables and pretend I’d been served the wrong meal, brandishing my fork at my imaginary server. I peered in the walk-in tubs, picked out a piece of chicken, and dipped it in the guacamole. Ate a stuffed jalapeno. Sniffed the enchilada fillings. I rifled through office files in the hopes of something interesting. I misplaced the restaurant keys, panicked, and found them again. I made up drinks to put in the bar rolodex called “The Nemotode” and “The Bulimic.” I talked to the stuffed gay parrot in the plastic palm tree. “Eat a dick, parrot,” I said before I skipped through the hallway and then—back to the bar. I wrote new specials on slips of paper, careful to mimic the font, like “Cockichangas” and “Our Fajitas are Fartastic!” then taped them into random menus for the hostess to find, who would curse the asshole who did this. I threw silverware into the fountain, taking the time to create an Emily Post-perfect place setting complete with salt and pepper underwater. I looked at the employee phone list staring at Noel’s number and crying until I manufactured a snot avalanche. Then I had to blow my nose, so I might as well go in the men’s room for a single-ply tissue, where I put a maraschino cherry on top of the urinal cake.
Four or five in the morning I staggered around the restaurant and removed incriminating evidence. I straightened the liquor bottles, set the alarm, and locked the door. Driving late at night through the City of Tobacco/Medicine, I squinted at the street lamps and turned the lights into stars, or on a really big night, comets. Sometimes I’d be halfway home and realize I’d left the Pet Shop Boys blaring and a bottle of Cuervo 1800 next to the microwave. I would remember and go back to cover my tracks. I always remembered, though.
Until the time I forgot.
Unemployed, I arrived at the final meeting of “What Are You Going to Do With the Rest of Your Life?”, when we would finally receive the printed out sheets of the expensive tests we’d paid for. Sharron Ross Ballentine explained that while these were to be a guide, some variance was to be expected. My Myers-Briggs test results revealed me to be an INFP. (Introvert. Intuitive. Feeling. Perceptive.) But in all four categories, I was only one or two answers away from the exact opposite, meaning I just as easily could be an ESTJ. Or an ENTP. Or an ISFJ. Or any other type in between.
My Strong Inventory results came up with these potential careers:
I stared at my results, waiting for a vision to emerge from the tea leaves.
“Why, you’re an artist!” effused Sharron Ross Ballentine, beaming at my right.
Ronald’s results told him he should be an engineer.
My one drum lesson with Noel went like this:
There was me, pretending to be in awe of a band playing the same set I had already seen at their shows, all because I wanted to sleep with someone else’s boyfriend. There was watching the band watching me, everyone knowing I was there to slut it up as a groupie. There were Noel’s lame pickup lines I swallowed like vitamins. There was the dark green, Pabst-soaked rug we rolled around on, sacrificing our integrity and personal hygiene for half an hour of awkward groping. There was knowing that the underlying reason for this hookup was Valerie’s epic butt rash. At this moment she was home face down, bare ass propped on a pillow, waiting for the ointment to absorb.
An alternative title to this essay could be, “Why, Against My Better Judgement, I Played Drums in a Rock Band for Twelve Years.” Looking back, I suspect this life decision was no less than my pursuit of redemption. There had been, though, for at least a flash of time, a real lesson. I sat on the throne, put my feet on the kick drum and hi hat pedals, and looked out. I might as well have been sitting at the controls of a space shuttle for all I knew what to do. Noel slipped behind me. I picked up the sticks and he wrapped my fingers around them at an angle. In that moment I had not arrived for a cheap hook up but, in fact, to rock.
Like this, he said into my neck.
And there was that brief glint of true admiration in Noel’s eye, when I eked out a basic, crude rock beat with all four limbs, cracking the snare with a thwack. I had impressed. The flash of actual admiration was so fleeting I almost fell over reaching for it, but I couldn’t hold on and the conversation slipped away to stories of broken limbs and surgeries. Noel never would have played the drums if a shattered femur and resulting surgery hadn’t kept him away from basketball. He spent six months in a hospital, practicing with sticks on a rubber pad to The Who. He handed me the sticks we had been using.
“For you,” he said, wrapping my hands around them as though sealing an oath.
The sticks felt solid in my hand.
“Hey,” he said. “I don’t mean to be weird, but do you wanna see my scar?”
As the nineties passed, the City of Tobacco gave way to the City of Medicine. Signs were changed. Coffee shops, condos, and martinis took root downtown as the rusty machinery was cleared out to make room for wood-fire pizza ovens. A Whole Foods Grocery landed like a gentrification mothership. But even as pepper-grinding bistros took over the hippie joints, much remained the same. People would grab my arm to entreaty, Oh, but have you been to Chez Pasta, and I had, but would go again thinking I must have missed something, only to pick at the same white bread and olive oil.
Despite itself, Durham remained a place of wondering and wandering. Instead of organizing my lost city, Whole Foods turned out to be the ideal focal point of further indecision, the perfect maze to wile away time and wonder as I grazed free samples of Marcona almonds and triple cream Brie.
One day I saw a woman set up in the nutrition aisle doling out free samples of a bright green mystery beverage in tiny paper cups. She didn’t recognize me as she explained that while she could go on about the health benefits, the cleaner blood and the energy, and how chlorophyll helps with, you know, odors, all I really had to know, was that Vita-green tasted terrific!
Sharron Ross Ballentine had the same energetic black eyes, but there was a limp behind the spark, as though her pupils were held up by tiny props.
Would I rather be a waiter or a rock star? A footnote or a legend? A sponge or a shark?
“Sample?” she said, lifting a paper cup in offering.
“Sure,” I said, downing the mossy elixir like a shot.