Getting Over Jack Wagner [NOOK Book]

Overview

Where are all the real rock stars?
Eliza is looking to date a rock star -- though she uses the term loosely. None of her boyfriends have been famous. Most have unbearable habits and overbearing mothers. A few only played show tunes. Still, they're intense. Pierced. Tragically stubbled. With a predilection for dressing in black. Eliza finds them deep -- in theory, anyway. But in reality, none comes close to the object of her original rock-star crush: actor/crooner Jack Wagner. ...
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Getting Over Jack Wagner

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Overview

Where are all the real rock stars?
Eliza is looking to date a rock star -- though she uses the term loosely. None of her boyfriends have been famous. Most have unbearable habits and overbearing mothers. A few only played show tunes. Still, they're intense. Pierced. Tragically stubbled. With a predilection for dressing in black. Eliza finds them deep -- in theory, anyway. But in reality, none comes close to the object of her original rock-star crush: actor/crooner Jack Wagner. When her latest catch turns out be another mama's boy, Eliza begins to realize love is nothing like her favorite '80s song.

Is she ready to face the music?
Just as Eliza is planning her next move, she's dealt an emotional triple-whammy involving her sister, her best friend, and a horrific blind date. That's when she realizes that only by taking a good look at her past -- and her tape collection -- will she ever be able to hear a different kind of song and live a different kind of life.
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Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Magazine
Juska's voice-fresh, clever, and sometimes hilarious-pulls you through swiftly to a refreshingly atypical ending.
April 2003
Booklist
A funny and endearing addition to the 'single girl in the city' genre.
March 25, 2003
Kirkus Reviews
A fine, smart, funny newcomer brings a bit of Bridget Jones, a touch of High Fidelity, a high pop-cultural IQ, and a refreshing emotional take to her debut outing. Eliza Simon’s first crush, at age ten, was Jack Wagner, the airbrushed pop heartthrob to whom she devotes herself when her distant, jazz-buff father disappears from her life. At 26, her tastes have changed, but not that much. There’s been a string of "rock star" boyfriends, each dumped as soon as Eliza spots his fatal flaw: that he’s human, not the romantic, über-cool ideal she’d thought. A copywriter at a travel agency, Eliza hangs out at a local club, picks up musicians, watches Behind the Music and ’80s sitcoms, and brings tuna casserole and irony to monthly dinners with her family. She’s also working (or not working) on her book, a guide to dating rock stars, each chapter starting with a mix tape and telling the story of one of her boyfriends—the dark, brooding guitarist and laid-back sax-player of high school; the organic, communard, jam-band singer in college—the same stories as the novel now tells. Her book is the only thing Eliza doesn’t share with best friends, neither fast, funny Andrew (who, in a movie, she tells us, would turn out to be her true love) nor sweet, understanding, hippie-ish Hannah. Sister Camilla’s pregnancy and Hannah’s engagement jar Eliza into doing things differently, and she goes on a date with a securities analyst. Which, amusingly, is even worse than she’d feared. When that doesn’t change her life, she plunges into crisis (and flails about for an ending for her book), nicely resolved in a moving, genuine, growing-up moment. Much is overfamiliar here (snack cakes as a food group; the"perfect" sister; Eliza being wacky because she talks to her cat), and a multiply pierced 26-year-old bemoaning spinsterhood gives pause at this late date. Overall, though, clever structure, swift pacing, emotional insight, and an ultimately charming voice make this one a standout.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743480673
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
  • Publication date: 3/18/2003
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 574,673
  • File size: 366 KB

Meet the Author

Elise Juska's short stories have appeared in many magazines, including The Hudson Review, Harvard Review, Salmagundi, Black Warrior Review, Calyx, and The Seattle Review. She teaches fiction writing at The New School in New York City and The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her first novel, Getting Over Jack Wagner, is available from Downtown Press.
Visit the author's website: elisejuska.com.
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Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1: bass guitarists
Side A

"Welcome to Paradise" -- Green Day

"Cool Rock Boy" -- Juliana Hatfield

"Summertime Rolls" -- Jane's Addiction

"Man in the Box" -- Alice in Chains

"Higher Ground" -- Red Hot Chili Peppers

As Karl the Bass Guitarist cruises along the Garden State Parkway at 90 mph in a black Saab Turbo 9000 with Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire thumping through the two amp-eight driver audio system, I suspect it will soon be over between us. We are heading into the depths of New Jersey, where I will be meeting Karl's mother for the first time.

"My mom's going to be stoked," Karl pronounces, jerking to a stop at the bottom of the off ramp. He reaches out and flicks the volume down. "I don't usually bring chicks home."

"Oh?"

"She doesn't even know we're coming."

"Wow."

Karl gazes at me from behind his black shades and reaches over to knead my thigh. He has no idea what he's set himself up for. Historically, to meet a rock star's mother is to be exposed to the parts of himself he hides on stage. It's to discover his embarrassing memories and vulnerabilities, every bad haircut, nickname, wet bed, lunch box, moon walk, band uniform and early eighties cassette he's ever tried to deny and leave behind. These are just the kinds of intimate details I try to avoid in a person.

I stare hard at the flapping windshield wipers until the light turns green. "Green," I pounce.

When Karl doesn't react, I point at the window. "The light. It's green."

"Oh." Karl gives my knee a squeeze, turns the Rage back up, and stomps on the gas. "Cool."

Karl is oblivious to our immediate danger as he speeds toward his mother's house. "Oblivious" sums up Karl's role during most of our thirty-three-day stint as a couple. We are your basic girl-meet-rock-star story: met on a Friday night, at The Blue Room, where his band (Electric Hoagie) was making its debut. Most of the rock stars I date these days I meet in The Blue Room, a two-story bar/coffee shop in Philadelphia. Like me, the place is equal parts Philly and arty: the first floor has comfy Friends-style couches, giant cups and frothing lattes, while the bar upstairs is presided over by battered dartboards, black light, and a beer-gutted bouncer named Ron who smells like fried steak. By the back wall of the bar squats a scuffed plywood stage.

As the Hoagies tuned up, I studied Karl the Bass Guitarist. Physically, he was dateable. Mid- to late-twenties, thin but toned, reddish crewcut, sharp blue eyes, two gold hoops in his left lobe, one in his right brow, shadow of scruff from jaw to chin. He was wearing army shorts shredded at the bottoms and a black T-shirt that said TRY ME.

Mid-set, I caught his eye as he screamed lyrics inches from the mic.

Post-set, he found me lingering deliberately near the bar.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

From there, it was pretty much textbook: a) I complimented the band, b) he bought me a beer, c) we found a pockmarked booth where we gulped our drinks and talked music and life and suffering-as-art while the blacklight made his teeth and eye whites shine like minnows in a tank, and d) we went back to his pad -- even used the term "pad" -- a basement apartment with shag rug, lava lamp, surly cactus.

"You're beautiful," he said, voice thick with Bud Light.

"Thanks."

"No. I mean it."

"So do I."

He ran one calloused fingertip down the side of my face. "I could really get into knowing you," he murmured, and looked deep into my eyes.

Deep.

Since making his first move, Karl's role in our relationship has not been too proactive. What we do and when we do it has been left largely up to me. I'm like the Events Coordinator -- dialing movie theaters, reserving concert tickets, cooking my famous tuna casserole -- while Karl watches what transpires between us as if it's happening of its own accord. Sometimes, when he looks up from plucking his guitar, he'll squint his eyes and bob his head as if absorbing my tiny apartment for the first time: the table set for two, beanbag chairs, melting candles, VH1's Rock Across America, a fat cat. Me.

Karl is thumping the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. It's raining hard now. The car feels like a sauna.

He nods out the window, then says something I can't make out.

"What?" I yell over the music.

"Main" -- he mouths exaggeratedly -- "drag."

It's one of the saddest main drags I've ever seen. The awning above the strip of stores reminds me of a giant dish towel, long, limp, and dripping. Underneath it, the store windows are crowded with merchandise found only in closets and garages, paper products and cleaning products and lawn ornaments shaped like tulips and ducks.

"Quaint," I reply.

I should clarify: this trip to meet Karl's mother does not have any deep significance. It was not planned in advance to further our relationship or symbolize our growth or affirm our commitment or any of the things Hannah (my best friend) and Alan (her "partner") always seem to be doing. It was a plan born of boredom: a rainy Sunday in June, and Karl's sudden recollection that his mother had things for him to pick up at the house.

Which doesn't surprise me. In my experience, rock stars' mothers are the most coddling mothers around, the type who like to feed and pinch and dress their sons even when they're over thirty. It leads me to suspect that most rock stars were mamas' boys growing up. That their entire musical careers might, in fact, be delayed rebellions for the overprotection they endured as boys.

But look closely, and you'll discover most rock stars are still mamas' boys at heart. Check inside their fridges: tinfoiled frozen lasagnas, homemade chicken soup, crustless egg salad sandwiches. Bathroom cabinets: cartoon Band-Aids, Flintstones vitamins, bottles of cherry-flavored cold medicine. In public, they might use the meds for recreation, swigging them for a preshow buzz. But I've found that, in reality, most rock stars are nothing like they seem.

I imagine it's something like the way other women are drawn to athletic men. Or outdoorsy, spiritual men. Men who make fruit shakes and have firm soccer calves. Men with blond childbearing genes and conservative mutual funds. Mine sounds like a ridiculous preoccupation, I realize, one that any literate, college-educated woman should have outgrown by age twenty-six. And, in most areas of my life, I am open to new experiences. I've tried roller blading and tae bo. I ate hummus, once. I read The Beauty Myth, twice. I recycle and vote. I borrowed Hannah's Buddhism books and, for ten days, practiced finding my center on the commuter rail.

Still, there is something about a rock star I want. I use the term "rock star" loosely, of course. They don't have to be actual stars (which is fortunate, since they never are). They don't even have to play rock music (though it's preferred). I've dabbled in classical, jazz, rap, even (briefly) show tunes. The reasons behind my infatuation are not entirely clear, even to me. It's not as simple as looking for a mate who likes white-water rafting or wants to raise the kids Catholic. It's more of a passion I'm looking for. A way of thinking deeply. Feeling deeply. Living against the grain.

Take Karl. His world consists largely of the space between his headphones, but I don't mind this inwardness about him; in fact, I kind of like it. It's intense, mysterious, slightly off the mark. It is nothing like Harv, my mother's second husband, a man who lives life from the smack-dab middle: a straight highway of credit cards and tip cards and Hollywood blockbusters, life as predictable as all-American pink pork cubes skewered along a kabob.

But despite my determination, rock stars invariably disappoint me. If it wasn't the bassist who wore tighty whities, it was the lead vocalist obsessed with Debbie Gibson, or the keyboardist who called me "dude." Still, I remain convinced that the real thing is out there. By now it's evolved into a kind of quest: to find the rock star who doesn't disappoint. The one who fits the image. Who does the trick. Who earns every overused cliché and cheesy song title, who will single-handedly "love me tender" and "love me in an elevator" all night long.

"In other words, the one who probably doesn't exist," Hannah mused. We were eating breakfast in Denny's at the time. This was about three months ago, four in the morning, twenty minutes after I'd leaped from the bed of my latest Blue Room find: a hard-rock drummer who'd asked me to stroke his feet to help him fall asleep.

"I think when you find the right man, his imperfections are the things you'll love about him most," Hannah yawned. Her mind was awake, but the rest of her -- pajamas, flip-flops, and curly, pillow-smashed red hair -- was not. "They're the things that will surprise you about him. The things you never could have dreamed up."

I'm sure she is right. Hannah is studying psychology. She has a loving family. She has a boyfriend who calls her "sweetheart" without irony. She is my oldest and dearest friend. Still, I didn't believe her for a second.

"Mmm hmm," I murmured, chewing a bacon nub.

"Maybe it's fear," she said, plucking a strawberry off the top of her fruit salad. Even at 4:00 A.M., Hannah is relentlessly healthy. "The way you tend to...terminate relationships. A manifestation of your fear of commitment."

Believe it or not, Hannah actually talks like this. In her defense, she didn't always. When Hannah and I became friends in fifth grade, most of what we spoke was "Valley talk," the short-lived lingo of "gnarlys" and "gag mes" that managed to infect even the suburbanest of suburban Philadelphia. That was the same year Hannah's family moved here from Minnesota, the year we discovered boys, demystified lockers, and started changing our clothes before gym. It was also the year my parents fought without stopping and I escaped to Hannah's house as often as I could.

From fifth grade onward, Hannah and I have become progressively more different. In high school, she headed cleanup drives while I memorized Van Halen lyrics. In college, she studied abroad in Africa and I pierced my nose. When she has a bad day, I recommend a Funyun; if I have a headache, she tells me to massage my navel. She's switched from coffee to herbal teas. She's given up meat and TV. She's feng shuied her apartment. She's fallen in love with Alan.

"It's not that I'm afraid of commitment," I argued, chewing harshly. Hannah and I have a deal: she has permission to practice her psychology on me if I'm allowed to get irrationally upset and eat bacon. "I just want what I want. It's like my Nanny used to say, I'm fussy. I like my orange juice with pulp. I like my boyfriends with souls."

I am fond of citing Nanny in moments like this one. My grandmother died about four years ago, and in retrospect has become my biggest fan. "Eliza plays the field," she was fond of saying. And: "Eliza's a tough nut to crack." These were compliments, I'm pretty sure. My mother, on the other hand, has made it her life's work to criticize me about anything and everything: piercing my nose, piercing my navel, wearing torn jeans in public, painting my bedroom black in high school, living in an "edgy" neighborhood of Philly (i.e., Manayunk, where there are boys with tattoos and modern art), and never managing to "stick with" boyfriends long enough.

"Maybe you just need to be a little more realistic," Hannah was saying. She popped a grape in her mouth. "You hold men up to sort of, high, standards."

I felt the familiar beginnings of a caffeine headache creep into my temples. For not the first time in my life, I found myself lamenting the fact that I couldn't have a best friend who gave advice like "screw the bastard," a friend who took me out and bought me Jello shots, a friend who abandoned me in corners of bars with guys named Trey wearing Dockers and CK for Men.

"You mean, I have to settle," I said.

"I mean, not all people will be as perfect as the ones you watch on TV. People have imperfections. They have moles. They have allergies. They have...mothers." She paused and sneezed. Hannah is allergic to everything. "It's like when I first met Lily," she said, blowing her nose on a napkin. "I felt this new intimacy with Alan. It was like I got to know him on another level."

I stared her in the eye, trying to deny the pounding in my temples. "What if I don't want to know him on another level?"

The minute Karl's mother spots him on the porch she flings the door open, grabs his face in two hands and squeezes. His hard-lined, sharp-stubbled rock star's cheeks bulge into two prickled dinner rolls.

"Sweetie pie!" she says. Her tone has a nervy edge that reveals, clearly, Karl should have called first. "I didn't know you were coming! If you'd told me, I would have vacuumed! I would have swept! I would have bought cold cuts!" She spots me standing behind him. "And who's this?"

"That's Eliza."

"Eliza!" says Mrs. Karl. Her tone has the kind of cheerful wariness with which all rock stars' mothers assess me at first, wondering which girl I will turn out to be: the one who will haul her son off to Baja in a cloud of funny-smelling smoke or the one who will manage to rein him in and get him mowing lawns and making babies. Mrs. Karl surveys me up and down: flared black jeans, gray T-shirt, nose ring, hair cut shoulder length and tucked behind my ears ("just don't wear it too short," my mother is fond of saying, "men might think you're a lesbian"). I'm sure Karl's mother can tell I'm not wearing a bra.

"Hi, Mrs. Irons," I say.

She nods, looking suddenly uncomfortable. It's as if by giving me the once-over, it's occurred to her how she herself must look. She clutches her flowered housedress over her pillowy breasts, while the other hand flies up to her red-gray hair and flutters there like a nervous moth. "Oh, I'm so embarrassed. I haven't even put on my face," she says, then proceeds to touch her eyes, cheeks, earlobes, as if confirming that, without decoration, they are all still there.

"Mom, chill," Karl says.

Mrs. Karl drops her hands and sighs, emotion gone stale and practical as a cracker. "Well, come on in," she says. "I'll get you kids something to snack on."

Mrs. Karl ushers us into the living room, then disappears. The room is filled with little things, thingy things. Ceramic dogs and blown eggs, commemorative plates and spoons, a revolving brass clock, wooden dolls stacked one inside the other -- things that strike me as eccentric and pointless and yet, oddly familiar. Karl and I each sink onto a daisy-patterned ottoman. I pull my knees and elbows in tight to my body, afraid I might send something crashing to the floor.

"It's a good thing you caught me," Mrs. Karl is calling from what I assume is the kitchen, to the tune of crumpling plastic and thumping cabinet doors. "I was just getting ready to go to the store. Your father's out golfing with Larry Harris, even though I told him he'll catch cold in the rain."

"Uh huh," Karl replies. He is watching me without blinking. It's the slightly unnerving expression Karl gets when he's preparing to kiss me. Karl is a hard-core kisser. When he leans in, I take a breath.

"But you know he never listens to me. He's always sneaking potato chips after I'm in bed. Does he think I don't see the crumbs in the morning? And the Krimpets in the basement. Does he think I don't know about those? He has a mole on his back he won't get checked, and he stands so close to the microwave it's like he wants radiation poisoning."

If there's anything more unnerving than kissing Karl, it's kissing Karl with his mother not ten feet away. In general, kissing Karl is pretty repulsive: too wet and too overt. And yet, there's some strange satisfaction in it. Afterward, I always feel as though I've been through some kind of taxing team sport: a moment's disorientation, a pleasant buzz, then a steady ache and the dim, proud feeling of having "played hard."

When I hear his mother's footsteps, I pull back. My lips are throbbing. Mrs. Karl appears holding a tray topped with two glasses of lemonade, a fan of crackers, squares of bright orange cheese. She's managed to put on lipstick, a bright red that veers in and out of the lip line. I can't help feeling sorry for her.

"It's the best I could do on short notice," she says, placing the tray on the coffee table. "It's those crackers you like so much, Karl. The buttery ones."

He nods and scoops up a handful, dribbling them in his mouth like M & Ms.

"Take a lemonade, Eliza," she instructs me.

I pick up a glass. It's a freebie one, from McDonalds. Under my thumb, the Hamburglar grins at me from behind his mask. "Thank you," I smile.

Mrs. Karl remains standing, waiting for me to sip it, so I take a gulp to prove my sincerity. Then she looks to Karl, who is crunching contentedly on crackers. Satisfied, she can finally sit. She herself doesn't eat or drink anything, I notice. I suspect she is one of those housewives, like my mother, who cook and clean all day but are almost never seen to rest or eat.

Now it is totally quiet. The only sound is the intermittent crunching of Karl's teeth on the buttery crackers he likes so much. Mrs. Karl is watching him with a small red smile, like a squashed cherry.

Finally I say, "I like your house, Mrs. Irons."

She shifts her gaze to me and presses her lips together. I can tell she's not sure if she can trust me or not, whether I am being honest or just kissing up. It's true, however. I do like her house; in a general sense, anyway. After six years of studio apartment living, any place with two floors and a basement feels like a mansion to me.

"Thank you," Mrs. Karl says. Her mouth pinches tighter, two purse strings drawn shut. "So," she says. "Eliza. Do you play music, too?" From the polite but pained look on her face, I can tell that she, like me, is recalling Karl's last girlfriend, who sang lead in an all-girl band and had her name legally changed to Lioness. "Or," she adds hopefully, two fingers starting to fidget at the hem of her dress, "do you do...something else?"

I have two options here. I can tell Mrs. Karl about the job I don't get paid for: the book I am trying to write. Or, I can describe the job that actually produces a paycheck. Graciously, I go for the latter.

"I'm a copywriter," I tell her. "For a travel agency. It's called Dreams Come True." When she doesn't react, I add, "Inc."

"Oh really?" Mrs. Karl says. Her face is relaxing. She sits forward and clasps her hands around her knees like a little girl. "What kinds of things do you copywrite?"

"A little bit of everything. Ads. Brochures. Radio spots. Press releases." Karl, I notice, has stopped eating to listen, and I wonder if this is the first he's heard of specifically what I do in the hours we're not together. "Basically, I write about exotic places people can go on vacation. But I don't go on them. I just read about them. Then I advertise them. So other people can go." Spelled out, it is the most depressing job in the world.

Mrs. Karl looks pleasantly confused. Karl's expression does not change. When neither of them makes a move to speak, I keep talking to fill the silence. I describe some of Dreams's vacation spots, then provide a couple of average hotel room rates and amenities. Feeling reckless, I toss out a few of my recent headlines:

Heavenly Hot Spots!

Sexy, Sizzlin' Summer Getaways!

Escaping The Woe-is-Me Winter Blahs!

At one point, I'm speaking entirely in adjectives.

Finally, in a moment that I'm sure feels metaphorical only to me, I inhale and conclude: "I write about fantasies. But here I am, stuck in reality."

An ice cube pops, my cue to get offstage. I think a Hummel actually scowls. Mrs. Karl's smile fades into a look of concern. "Mmm hmm," she murmurs, passing me the crackers like a consolation prize. Karl is nodding appreciatively.

Fixing my eyes on a daisy-shaped throw rug, I sit back and nibble on cheese. So far, I must admit, Mrs. Karl hasn't been that terrible. There have been no childhood stories, no trophies, no bronzed baby shoes. Any minute, though, I am positive she'll feel a bout of nostalgia coming on. First, she'll bring out the photo albums. Or she'll set up the slide projector and start narrating. Or she'll tell me the play-by-play details of the messy, painful, thirty-seven-hour labor that produced baby Karl.

When I finally dare to look up, it is even worse than I imagined. Mrs. Karl has defied all rock star-mother precedent by bypassing the childhood/nostalgia phase and going straight for the jugular: personal hygiene. I watch, horrified, as she plucks and pokes at Karl's rough stubble like it's a pesky weed that's invaded her garden. Before I know it, she's prodding at his gold hoop earrings, scouting his lobes for infection. She's picking up his hand and examining under his fingernails.

Karl's rock star image is fading by the second.

I know I need to act fast. Glancing around the room, I search for someplace secure to rest my eyes. Porcelain dogs. Porcelain saints. A pinecone bunny. A wreath made of shellacked Oreos. Panicked, I alight on the family portraits lined up on the windowsill. They are airbrushed, framed. I feel, momentarily, safe. But in a matter of seconds, I have identified the true origin of Karl's blue-eyed, red-haired rocker brawn: Ireland. Karl descends from a long line of pale, plump Irish people who beam at me from 8 x 11s, pink-cheeked great-uncles and great-great-uncles primped and propped and scrubbed clean by their wives, then filled to the brim with tea and sausages. When I turn back to Karl, I could swear his face has bleached a few shades.

"That sounds like a nice job," Mrs. Karl is saying, hands refolded innocently around her knees. It's a few seconds before I realize she's still referring to me. "I'd love to travel someplace someday. The Bahamas. The Bermuda." The Bermuda? The Bermuda? My head starts to pound, a small pickax between my eyes. "Someplace nice and sunny," she says, sighing. She turns back to Karl. "You need to be careful in the sun, you know, honey. Next time I'm out, I'll pick you up some sunscreen."

Back on the road in Karl's black Saab Turbo 9000 with the two amp-eight driver audio system, I am part frightened by what just happened and part dreading what must happen next. Karl is jamming to Korn, hot damp air is blasting through the sunroof, and I am trying to control my headache by recalling Hannah's advice about talking gently to my cranium. Unfortunately, contrary to the spirit of the exercise, all that comes to mind is Screw you, cranium! The only spot of comfort in this fiasco is the anticipation of gloating when I recap the afternoon for Andrew.

If my best friend Hannah tends to be abstract, my best friend Andrew defines concrete. The man is made of calculators and train schedules, Bic pens and neckties, packs of minty fresh gum. He is a law student at Penn, lives in Chestnut Hill, and reads books with words like "Earn," "Win" and "10 Tips" in the titles. I tell him he's going to end up one of those guys who paces on train platforms, barking into his cell phone, crunching on antacids, heart about to leap screaming from his chest.

"That will never be me," Andrew says with mock sincerity. Ever since his dad's bypass surgery, I joke about this because it terrifies me. "I will never have a cell phone."

My two best friends have little in common besides their friendships with me. They try hard at conversation, but everything they say just misses the other. Hannah's words waft past Andrew's ears. Andrew's zing over Hannah's head. I watch their conversations like cartoons, complete with whaps and blams and whooshs.

Andrew: So, how's the psych school treating you?

Hannah: Oh, pretty well, I guess. I'm learning a lot. That's the important thing.

Andrew: I thought making money was the important thing.

Hannah (thoughtful): I know what you mean. It's easy to forget why we do what we do...to lose our centers. We need to be careful not to neglect our spiritual side.

Andrew (confused): But I love neglecting my spiritual side.

Eventually, my two best friends wind up silent and perplexed in each other's presence. Hannah takes Andrew far too seriously. Andrew can't conceive of someone so lacking in irony. I figure I'm somewhere in between. Part of me views life with Andrew's casual distance, roughhousing with it, boxing it into bad puns, slinging an arm around its shoulders and buying it a martini. Another part of me knows that nothing, absolutely nothing, rolls right off me.

Technically speaking, I have a repartee with Andrew that I'll never have with Hannah; some of this stems from the fact that Hannah doesn't watch TV. Andrew and my conversations are sharp, subtle, almost scriptlike, relying on a shared history of college and pop culture that requires little explication. With Hannah, conversation is more patient. It requires more pauses and thoughts and words. Sometimes I wish I could toss out a reference like "pork chops and applesauce," knowing she'd be right there with me. (She wouldn't. I tried it once and she gave me a brochure about the dangers of fatty acids.) Despite all their differences, however, both my best friends think the rock star/mother curse is in my head.

"No one's mother is that bad," Andrew insists.

"They are."

"They're not."

"Why would I make this stuff up?"

"You're not making it up. You're just exaggerating. Like always."

By "always," Andrew is referring to life since he met me: freshman year of college. Both Andrew and I went to Wissahickon, a small, expensive school made of brick and pine trees in the hills of central Pennsylvania. Technically, we met while passing a Nerf ball between our chins during an awkward freshman icebreaker. But our first real conversation was on a Saturday, one month later, when the rest of our dorm was still out partying and both of us had retreated, half drunk, to the basement "lounge" to watch late-night reruns of The Brady Bunch.

"You know," Andrew said. We were sitting side by side on the single puke-green couch that hadn't yet been stolen. "Jan doesn't get the credit she deserves. She's a cute girl."

"Maybe." It was the Grand Canyon episode, part one of the three-parter when Bobby and Cindy get lost in the hills, the gang gets thrown in jail, and Alice rides backward on a mule. "But Greg's the real babe of the show," I said, slurring so "babe of the show" sounded alarmingly, but sort of interestingly, like "Barbarino." "Remember the one where he called himself Johnny Bravo?"

"Almost as good as the one where he made Mike's den into a bachelor pad," Andrew said, earning my instant respect. "That episode is what made me lobby to turn my parents' garage into an apartment."

I snuck a glance at him. He was wearing the Wissahickon uniform: khakis, Tevas, fleece pullover, and a dirty baseball cap swiveled backward. He was cute, in a generic sort of way. "So did you?"

"I tried. It was freezing and full of power tools and giant spiders. The groovy chicks didn't exactly come running."

When the show was over, we lapsed into a few rounds of "Bob-BY! CIN-dy!" mountain-call impressions, then discussed the other kids in our dorm and discovered our opinions were the same about virtually all of them. And finally, because we were drunk, and because it was late, and because there was nothing left to talk about, we kissed. Everyone kissed everyone in college. Sitting alone in a dorm lounge at 3:00 A.M. on a Saturday, there really seemed no other plausible way to get up and say good night.

But even in that first kiss, it was obvious something was missing between us. Our kisses were too kind, too considerate. We paused for Andrew to adjust a contact lens. I sneezed; he drew back and said "gesundheit." We were too unself-conscious around each other too fast. Yet, for the next six weeks, we made a valiant attempt to be a couple. We slept together (but never "slept together," a gut instinct for which I am eternally grateful). We stored things in each other's rooms: his saline solution on my dresser, my tampons in his desk drawer. We went to breakfast in our pajamas. We tried to fight, but they were stupid fights (which is the best episode of Three's Company? which is better, Cocoa Krispies or Puffs?) and there were always smiles twitching on our faces, as if we were two actors trying to stay composed during a love scene but ready to dissolve into hysterics, link arms, wander off the set and grab a chili dog.

By December, we admitted -- to the chagrin of my mother, who had fallen madly in love with Andrew over Parents Weekend -- that we were just good friends, friends who were both lonely and liked bad cereal and sitcoms. Still, many people insist that Andrew and I will one day end up together. Between us, it's become a running gag.

"You're way too blond," I tell him. "You're one of those healthy, happy-go-lucky blond guys who bug the hell out of me."

"You're one of those brooding dark-haired chicks," he replies. "You people make me tense."

"You just don't like me because I'm not a lawyer."

"And you don't like me because I don't play rock 'n roll." Sometimes Andrew accents this line with a few moments of awkward air guitaring. It's one of his habits, like wearing socks with sandals, that I've told him he really should try to break.

"If only you were gay," I sigh. "Then we'd have the perfect '90s friendship."

Now, even though Andrew and I dated for just forty-one days eight years ago, the experience has entitled us to a certain familiarity when it comes to each other's love lives. It gives us the right to chuckle lightly and say things like "oh, that" and "I forgot you did that" and (see above) "you're just exaggerating, as usual." Having dated for forty-one days eight years ago also rules out our ever completely approving of anyone the other person dates. This is because you understand, on some subconscious level, they chose that person over you.

For example, Andrew's current girlfriend. Her name is Kimberley. Kim-ber-ley. It sounds like an adverb or adjective. I could use it to describe a vacation spa ("where expert masseuses will kimberley relieve your sore muscles") or a Mexican villa ("where the kimberley, gauze-draped beds will float you to sleep under the stars").

Like all of Andrew's law-school girlfriends, he and Kimberley do a lot of debating. Whether movies are good or bad. How big a tip a waiter deserves. Where to get the best pizza in Center City and the cheapest place to park and/or fastest way to get there. It's a different kind of arguing than the halfhearted pop-culture disagreements Andrew and I had in college. With Kimberley, it's more like legal foreplay: heated, stubborn, packed with legalese, yet groping each other the entire time.

In the end, of course, I want Andrew to be happy. I will support his decisions. I will endure his habits. I will delicately avert my eyes when he debates with his girlfriends. I will be kind to these women and accompany them to ladies' rest rooms in restaurants and talk to them about candid, girlish things as we pee -- how our makeup is smearing in the heat, how PMSed we are -- topics that are exclusively female and therefore qualify us as having bonded.

And I will take Andrew's advice seriously. Like Hannah, he is often more sensible about my life than I am. Whenever he argues me on the meet-the-mother point, however, I can conveniently remind him of the night I met his mother for the first time: Thanksgiving Day, freshman year, at his parents' house in rural Vermont where his mother, over the peach pie and coffee, made him perform "Over the River and Through the Woods" on his old trombone.

It is silent as Karl parks outside his apartment. We didn't speak much on the ride home, though the tunes were so loud it didn't feel obvious. Now, it feels obvious. The silence is thick, waxy, difficult. The car smells like the lasagna his mother handed him as we were leaving, which now slumbers on the floor of the backseat, heavy with congealing cheese. It has just started to rain again, drops assaulting the windows like thousands of drumming fingernails. I wonder if it feels as symbolic to Karl as it does to me.

"Coming down?" Karl asks.

I stare at my lap, considering the offer. If I go inside Karl's basement apartment, I can predict every detail of what will happen next: the way he'll toss the lasagna on the counter and crank up the Limp Bizkit, followed by the round of sex on his scratchy tiger-print blanket. I have a flash of Karl's Celtic-white arms and legs, scruff picked clean by his mother, breath smelling like buttery crackers. And after, the way he'll pluck at his guitar, shirtless, shoeless, forking cold lasagna straight from the pan. I can already imagine the noise of it, the sweat of it. The noise and sweat of it.

"I don't know," I say, affecting a yawn. "I'm really tired. I think I need to go home and unwind."

Karl frowns. He takes his hand off my knee. "What's going on?"

"What do you mean?" I poke at a hole in the seat cushion, burying my finger to the knuckle.

Karl shrugs, waiting. He is very good at waiting. Maybe it's all the time spent in his head. "Usually, when people say they have to unwind," he says, "there's something that wound them up to begin with. That's what I mean."

It is always, always, in moments like these that rock stars will surprise you. Just when their image has begun to splinter and crack, just when their true self is starting to peek through, they will say something surprising, something insightful, something to catch me off guard.

"It's not that kind of unwind," I try to explain, forcing myself not to look at his biceps or chest-ceps or suddenly attractively earnest blue eyes. "Honestly. It's just...I have some stuff to do. Laundry. Bills. Errands. I haven't fed Leroy since, like, Wednesday."

This is not true and Karl knows it. To his credit, he doesn't accuse me of lying. He just watches me, direct and unblinking, while my guilty glance skitters from his denim lap to his AC/DC key ring to the floor mat, littered with empty coffee cups and scratched, sticky guitar picks. "I know," he says, and I can feel his eyes roaming around inside my conscience. "You want to go home so you can work on that book."

The concept for the book is this: it will be a guide to dating rock stars. It will be part fiction, part nonfiction. It will be part humor, part personal health. It will qualify as sociology, how-to, reference, and the performing arts. Each chapter will focus on a different kind of musician -- an ambassador from the instrumental genre, if you will -- and what to expect (and not expect) if you date them. I consider it a public service, a way of using my collective experience to better the world. Maybe, as a bonus, I'll figure out where my own rock star is hiding.

As of yet, I haven't actually started writing the book. I've taken notes, made lists, scribbled ideas. My latest brainstorm is to begin each chapter with songs from a would-be mix tape readers can play as they read along. It would function like any good mix should: triggering a memory, evoking a mood, recalling an especially regrettable year of the 1980s. Capturing the tone and lyric of your life in a particular moment.

The Book With Mix Tape idea grew out of my original scheme, which was Movies That Smell. I still think this idea has merit. The concept is this: you sit in the movie theater and can actually smell the scenes as you watch them.

Examples:

a) Mystic Pizza = Italian sausage and pepperoni.

b) Beaches = sunscreen and ocean breeze.

c) Forrest Gump =

"But what do you do if it's a war movie?" Andrew had asked, after I called him to relay my plan. "Or are all the scenes going to be ones that would smell good?" I could practically hear his brain working over the phone, a series of popping cash register drawers. "That means you're basically ruling out all movies set in major cities. The Rockys. The Godfathers. Taxi Driver. Anything Woody Allen. You're going to have to pick ones set only in places that smell good...like the south of Spain. Like Sevilla." He paused. "Did I ever tell you how it smells like oranges in Sevilla?"

I did mention that Andrew was practical-minded. He also has a tendency to get carried away with his own good sense sometimes, questioning and rationalizing until there's nothing left of a great idea but a few conjunctions. Whenever possible, he also likes to flaunt the fact that he studied abroad our junior year -- "Sevilla," he calls it, accent and all -- and I, because of lead vocalist Win Brewer (see Chapter Eight), did not.

Hannah had a more personal take on Movies That Smell.

"That's so you, Eliza," she smiled. "You want to enhance reality. Magnify it, stretch it. You become unsettled when things are too real."

It was then that I decided the world wasn't ready for Movies That Smell (plus, Andrew had started scaring me with legal talk about people with allergies). So I've redirected my focus: a Book With Mix Tape is the way to go. I haven't told either best friend about it. Karl knows there is a book, but not what the book's about. Maybe I won't tell anyone until it's finished.

Because, for now, I'm thinking this book is a pretty good idea. A valuable social resource, a clever book + music marketing concept. Or, it's what my elementary school art teacher was trying to warn my mother about after I made Michael Jackson's head out of papier-mâché. "Eliza has so much creative potential," she said, sighing. "I just worry about how she's choosing to harness it."

Copyright © 2003 by Elise Juska

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: bass guitarists

Side A

"Welcome to Paradise" -- Green Day

"Cool Rock Boy" -- Juliana Hatfield

"Summertime Rolls" -- Jane's Addiction

"Man in the Box" -- Alice in Chains

"Higher Ground" -- Red Hot Chili Peppers

As Karl the Bass Guitarist cruises along the Garden State Parkway at 90 mph in a black Saab Turbo 9000 with Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire thumping through the two amp-eight driver audio system, I suspect it will soon be over between us. We are heading into the depths of New Jersey, where I will be meeting Karl's mother for the first time.

"My mom's going to be stoked," Karl pronounces, jerking to a stop at the bottom of the off ramp. He reaches out and flicks the volume down. "I don't usually bring chicks home."

"Oh?"

"She doesn't even know we're coming."

"Wow."

Karl gazes at me from behind his black shades and reaches over to knead my thigh. He has no idea what he's set himself up for. Historically, to meet a rock star's mother is to be exposed to the parts of himself he hides on stage. It's to discover his embarrassing memories and vulnerabilities, every bad haircut, nickname, wet bed, lunch box, moon walk, band uniform and early eighties cassette he's ever tried to deny and leave behind. These are just the kinds of intimate details I try to avoid in a person.

I stare hard at the flapping windshield wipers until the light turns green. "Green," I pounce.

When Karl doesn't react, I point at the window. "The light. It's green."

"Oh." Karl gives my knee a squeeze, turns the Rage back up, and stomps on the gas. "Cool."

Karl is oblivious to our immediate danger as he speeds toward his mother's house. "Oblivious" sums up Karl's role during most of our thirty-three-day stint as a couple. We are your basic girl-meet-rock-star story: met on a Friday night, at The Blue Room, where his band (Electric Hoagie) was making its debut. Most of the rock stars I date these days I meet in The Blue Room, a two-story bar/coffee shop in Philadelphia. Like me, the place is equal parts Philly and arty: the first floor has comfy Friends-style couches, giant cups and frothing lattes, while the bar upstairs is presided over by battered dartboards, black light, and a beer-gutted bouncer named Ron who smells like fried steak. By the back wall of the bar squats a scuffed plywood stage.

As the Hoagies tuned up, I studied Karl the Bass Guitarist. Physically, he was dateable. Mid- to late-twenties, thin but toned, reddish crewcut, sharp blue eyes, two gold hoops in his left lobe, one in his right brow, shadow of scruff from jaw to chin. He was wearing army shorts shredded at the bottoms and a black T-shirt that said TRY ME.

Mid-set, I caught his eye as he screamed lyrics inches from the mic.

Post-set, he found me lingering deliberately near the bar.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey."

From there, it was pretty much textbook: a) I complimented the band, b) he bought me a beer, c) we found a pockmarked booth where we gulped our drinks and talked music and life and suffering-as-art while the blacklight made his teeth and eye whites shine like minnows in a tank, and d) we went back to his pad -- even used the term "pad" -- a basement apartment with shag rug, lava lamp, surly cactus.

"You're beautiful," he said, voice thick with Bud Light.

"Thanks."

"No. I mean it."

"So do I."

He ran one calloused fingertip down the side of my face. "I could really get into knowing you," he murmured, and looked deep into my eyes.

Deep.

Since making his first move, Karl's role in our relationship has not been too proactive. What we do and when we do it has been left largely up to me. I'm like the Events Coordinator -- dialing movie theaters, reserving concert tickets, cooking my famous tuna casserole -- while Karl watches what transpires between us as if it's happening of its own accord. Sometimes, when he looks up from plucking his guitar, he'll squint his eyes and bob his head as if absorbing my tiny apartment for the first time: the table set for two, beanbag chairs, melting candles, VH1's Rock Across America, a fat cat. Me.

Karl is thumping the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. It's raining hard now. The car feels like a sauna.

He nods out the window, then says something I can't make out.

"What?" I yell over the music.

"Main" -- he mouths exaggeratedly -- "drag."

It's one of the saddest main drags I've ever seen. The awning above the strip of stores reminds me of a giant dish towel, long, limp, and dripping. Underneath it, the store windows are crowded with merchandise found only in closets and garages, paper products and cleaning products and lawn ornaments shaped like tulips and ducks.

"Quaint," I reply.

I should clarify: this trip to meet Karl's mother does not have any deep significance. It was not planned in advance to further our relationship or symbolize our growth or affirm our commitment or any of the things Hannah (my best friend) and Alan (her "partner") always seem to be doing. It was a plan born of boredom: a rainy Sunday in June, and Karl's sudden recollection that his mother had things for him to pick up at the house.

Which doesn't surprise me. In my experience, rock stars' mothers are the most coddling mothers around, the type who like to feed and pinch and dress their sons even when they're over thirty. It leads me to suspect that most rock stars were mamas' boys growing up. That their entire musical careers might, in fact, be delayed rebellions for the overprotection they endured as boys.

But look closely, and you'll discover most rock stars are still mamas' boys at heart. Check inside their fridges: tinfoiled frozen lasagnas, homemade chicken soup, crustless egg salad sandwiches. Bathroom cabinets: cartoon Band-Aids, Flintstones vitamins, bottles of cherry-flavored cold medicine. In public, they might use the meds for recreation, swigging them for a preshow buzz. But I've found that, in reality, most rock stars are nothing like they seem.


I imagine it's something like the way other women are drawn to athletic men. Or outdoorsy, spiritual men. Men who make fruit shakes and have firm soccer calves. Men with blond childbearing genes and conservative mutual funds. Mine sounds like a ridiculous preoccupation, I realize, one that any literate, college-educated woman should have outgrown by age twenty-six. And, in most areas of my life, I am open to new experiences. I've tried roller blading and tae bo. I ate hummus, once. I read The Beauty Myth, twice. I recycle and vote. I borrowed Hannah's Buddhism books and, for ten days, practiced finding my center on the commuter rail.

Still, there is something about a rock star I want. I use the term "rock star" loosely, of course. They don't have to be actual stars (which is fortunate, since they never are). They don't even have to play rock music (though it's preferred). I've dabbled in classical, jazz, rap, even (briefly) show tunes. The reasons behind my infatuation are not entirely clear, even to me. It's not as simple as looking for a mate who likes white-water rafting or wants to raise the kids Catholic. It's more of a passion I'm looking for. A way of thinking deeply. Feeling deeply. Living against the grain.

Take Karl. His world consists largely of the space between his headphones, but I don't mind this inwardness about him; in fact, I kind of like it. It's intense, mysterious, slightly off the mark. It is nothing like Harv, my mother's second husband, a man who lives life from the smack-dab middle: a straight highway of credit cards and tip cards and Hollywood blockbusters, life as predictable as all-American pink pork cubes skewered along a kabob.

But despite my determination, rock stars invariably disappoint me. If it wasn't the bassist who wore tighty whities, it was the lead vocalist obsessed with Debbie Gibson, or the keyboardist who called me "dude." Still, I remain convinced that the real thing is out there. By now it's evolved into a kind of quest: to find the rock star who doesn't disappoint. The one who fits the image. Who does the trick. Who earns every overused cliché and cheesy song title, who will single-handedly "love me tender" and "love me in an elevator" all night long.

"In other words, the one who probably doesn't exist," Hannah mused. We were eating breakfast in Denny's at the time. This was about three months ago, four in the morning, twenty minutes after I'd leaped from the bed of my latest Blue Room find: a hard-rock drummer who'd asked me to stroke his feet to help him fall asleep.

"I think when you find the right man, his imperfections are the things you'll love about him most," Hannah yawned. Her mind was awake, but the rest of her -- pajamas, flip-flops, and curly, pillow-smashed red hair -- was not. "They're the things that will surprise you about him. The things you never could have dreamed up."

I'm sure she is right. Hannah is studying psychology. She has a loving family. She has a boyfriend who calls her "sweetheart" without irony. She is my oldest and dearest friend. Still, I didn't believe her for a second.

"Mmm hmm," I murmured, chewing a bacon nub.

"Maybe it's fear," she said, plucking a strawberry off the top of her fruit salad. Even at 4:00 A.M., Hannah is relentlessly healthy. "The way you tend to...terminate relationships. A manifestation of your fear of commitment."

Believe it or not, Hannah actually talks like this. In her defense, she didn't always. When Hannah and I became friends in fifth grade, most of what we spoke was "Valley talk," the short-lived lingo of "gnarlys" and "gag mes" that managed to infect even the suburbanest of suburban Philadelphia. That was the same year Hannah's family moved here from Minnesota, the year we discovered boys, demystified lockers, and started changing our clothes before gym. It was also the year my parents fought without stopping and I escaped to Hannah's house as often as I could.

From fifth grade onward, Hannah and I have become progressively more different. In high school, she headed cleanup drives while I memorized Van Halen lyrics. In college, she studied abroad in Africa and I pierced my nose. When she has a bad day, I recommend a Funyun; if I have a headache, she tells me to massage my navel. She's switched from coffee to herbal teas. She's given up meat and TV. She's feng shuied her apartment. She's fallen in love with Alan.

"It's not that I'm afraid of commitment," I argued, chewing harshly. Hannah and I have a deal: she has permission to practice her psychology on me if I'm allowed to get irrationally upset and eat bacon. "I just want what I want. It's like my Nanny used to say, I'm fussy. I like my orange juice with pulp. I like my boyfriends with souls."

I am fond of citing Nanny in moments like this one. My grandmother died about four years ago, and in retrospect has become my biggest fan. "Eliza plays the field," she was fond of saying. And: "Eliza's a tough nut to crack." These were compliments, I'm pretty sure. My mother, on the other hand, has made it her life's work to criticize me about anything and everything: piercing my nose, piercing my navel, wearing torn jeans in public, painting my bedroom black in high school, living in an "edgy" neighborhood of Philly (i.e., Manayunk, where there are boys with tattoos and modern art), and never managing to "stick with" boyfriends long enough.

"Maybe you just need to be a little more realistic," Hannah was saying. She popped a grape in her mouth. "You hold men up to sort of, high, standards."

I felt the familiar beginnings of a caffeine headache creep into my temples. For not the first time in my life, I found myself lamenting the fact that I couldn't have a best friend who gave advice like "screw the bastard," a friend who took me out and bought me Jello shots, a friend who abandoned me in corners of bars with guys named Trey wearing Dockers and CK for Men.

"You mean, I have to settle," I said.

"I mean, not all people will be as perfect as the ones you watch on TV. People have imperfections. They have moles. They have allergies. They have...mothers." She paused and sneezed. Hannah is allergic to everything. "It's like when I first met Lily," she said, blowing her nose on a napkin. "I felt this new intimacy with Alan. It was like I got to know him on another level."

I stared her in the eye, trying to deny the pounding in my temples. "What if I don't want to know him on another level?"


The minute Karl's mother spots him on the porch she flings the door open, grabs his face in two hands and squeezes. His hard-lined, sharp-stubbled rock star's cheeks bulge into two prickled dinner rolls.

"Sweetie pie!" she says. Her tone has a nervy edge that reveals, clearly, Karl should have called first. "I didn't know you were coming! If you'd told me, I would have vacuumed! I would have swept! I would have bought cold cuts!" She spots me standing behind him. "And who's this?"

"That's Eliza."

"Eliza!" says Mrs. Karl. Her tone has the kind of cheerful wariness with which all rock stars' mothers assess me at first, wondering which girl I will turn out to be: the one who will haul her son off to Baja in a cloud of funny-smelling smoke or the one who will manage to rein him in and get him mowing lawns and making babies. Mrs. Karl surveys me up and down: flared black jeans, gray T-shirt, nose ring, hair cut shoulder length and tucked behind my ears ("just don't wear it too short," my mother is fond of saying, "men might think you're a lesbian"). I'm sure Karl's mother can tell I'm not wearing a bra.

"Hi, Mrs. Irons," I say.

She nods, looking suddenly uncomfortable. It's as if by giving me the once-over, it's occurred to her how she herself must look. She clutches her flowered housedress over her pillowy breasts, while the other hand flies up to her red-gray hair and flutters there like a nervous moth. "Oh, I'm so embarrassed. I haven't even put on my face," she says, then proceeds to touch her eyes, cheeks, earlobes, as if confirming that, without decoration, they are all still there.

"Mom, chill," Karl says.

Mrs. Karl drops her hands and sighs, emotion gone stale and practical as a cracker. "Well, come on in," she says. "I'll get you kids something to snack on."

Mrs. Karl ushers us into the living room, then disappears. The room is filled with little things, thingy things. Ceramic dogs and blown eggs, commemorative plates and spoons, a revolving brass clock, wooden dolls stacked one inside the other -- things that strike me as eccentric and pointless and yet, oddly familiar. Karl and I each sink onto a daisy-patterned ottoman. I pull my knees and elbows in tight to my body, afraid I might send something crashing to the floor.

"It's a good thing you caught me," Mrs. Karl is calling from what I assume is the kitchen, to the tune of crumpling plastic and thumping cabinet doors. "I was just getting ready to go to the store. Your father's out golfing with Larry Harris, even though I told him he'll catch cold in the rain."

"Uh huh," Karl replies. He is watching me without blinking. It's the slightly unnerving expression Karl gets when he's preparing to kiss me. Karl is a hard-core kisser. When he leans in, I take a breath.

"But you know he never listens to me. He's always sneaking potato chips after I'm in bed. Does he think I don't see the crumbs in the morning? And the Krimpets in the basement. Does he think I don't know about those? He has a mole on his back he won't get checked, and he stands so close to the microwave it's like he wants radiation poisoning."

If there's anything more unnerving than kissing Karl, it's kissing Karl with his mother not ten feet away. In general, kissing Karl is pretty repulsive: too wet and too overt. And yet, there's some strange satisfaction in it. Afterward, I always feel as though I've been through some kind of taxing team sport: a moment's disorientation, a pleasant buzz, then a steady ache and the dim, proud feeling of having "played hard."

When I hear his mother's footsteps, I pull back. My lips are throbbing. Mrs. Karl appears holding a tray topped with two glasses of lemonade, a fan of crackers, squares of bright orange cheese. She's managed to put on lipstick, a bright red that veers in and out of the lip line. I can't help feeling sorry for her.

"It's the best I could do on short notice," she says, placing the tray on the coffee table. "It's those crackers you like so much, Karl. The buttery ones."

He nods and scoops up a handful, dribbling them in his mouth like M & Ms.

"Take a lemonade, Eliza," she instructs me.

I pick up a glass. It's a freebie one, from McDonalds. Under my thumb, the Hamburglar grins at me from behind his mask. "Thank you," I smile.

Mrs. Karl remains standing, waiting for me to sip it, so I take a gulp to prove my sincerity. Then she looks to Karl, who is crunching contentedly on crackers. Satisfied, she can finally sit. She herself doesn't eat or drink anything, I notice. I suspect she is one of those housewives, like my mother, who cook and clean all day but are almost never seen to rest or eat.

Now it is totally quiet. The only sound is the intermittent crunching of Karl's teeth on the buttery crackers he likes so much. Mrs. Karl is watching him with a small red smile, like a squashed cherry.

Finally I say, "I like your house, Mrs. Irons."

She shifts her gaze to me and presses her lips together. I can tell she's not sure if she can trust me or not, whether I am being honest or just kissing up. It's true, however. I do like her house; in a general sense, anyway. After six years of studio apartment living, any place with two floors and a basement feels like a mansion to me.

"Thank you," Mrs. Karl says. Her mouth pinches tighter, two purse strings drawn shut. "So," she says. "Eliza. Do you play music, too?" From the polite but pained look on her face, I can tell that she, like me, is recalling Karl's last girlfriend, who sang lead in an all-girl band and had her name legally changed to Lioness. "Or," she adds hopefully, two fingers starting to fidget at the hem of her dress, "do you do...something else?"

I have two options here. I can tell Mrs. Karl about the job I don't get paid for: the book I am trying to write. Or, I can describe the job that actually produces a paycheck. Graciously, I go for the latter.

"I'm a copywriter," I tell her. "For a travel agency. It's called Dreams Come True." When she doesn't react, I add, "Inc."

"Oh really?" Mrs. Karl says. Her face is relaxing. She sits forward and clasps her hands around her knees like a little girl. "What kinds of things do you copywrite?"

"A little bit of everything. Ads. Brochures. Radio spots. Press releases." Karl, I notice, has stopped eating to listen, and I wonder if this is the first he's heard of specifically what I do in the hours we're not together. "Basically, I write about exotic places people can go on vacation. But I don't go on them. I just read about them. Then I advertise them. So other people can go." Spelled out, it is the most depressing job in the world.

Mrs. Karl looks pleasantly confused. Karl's expression does not change. When neither of them makes a move to speak, I keep talking to fill the silence. I describe some of Dreams's vacation spots, then provide a couple of average hotel room rates and amenities. Feeling reckless, I toss out a few of my recent headlines:

Heavenly Hot Spots!

Sexy, Sizzlin' Summer Getaways!

Escaping The Woe-is-Me Winter Blahs!

At one point, I'm speaking entirely in adjectives.

Finally, in a moment that I'm sure feels metaphorical only to me, I inhale and conclude: "I write about fantasies. But here I am, stuck in reality."

An ice cube pops, my cue to get offstage. I think a Hummel actually scowls. Mrs. Karl's smile fades into a look of concern. "Mmm hmm," she murmurs, passing me the crackers like a consolation prize. Karl is nodding appreciatively.

Fixing my eyes on a daisy-shaped throw rug, I sit back and nibble on cheese. So far, I must admit, Mrs. Karl hasn't been that terrible. There have been no childhood stories, no trophies, no bronzed baby shoes. Any minute, though, I am positive she'll feel a bout of nostalgia coming on. First, she'll bring out the photo albums. Or she'll set up the slide projector and start narrating. Or she'll tell me the play-by-play details of the messy, painful, thirty-seven-hour labor that produced baby Karl.

When I finally dare to look up, it is even worse than I imagined. Mrs. Karl has defied all rock star-mother precedent by bypassing the childhood/nostalgia phase and going straight for the jugular: personal hygiene. I watch, horrified, as she plucks and pokes at Karl's rough stubble like it's a pesky weed that's invaded her garden. Before I know it, she's prodding at his gold hoop earrings, scouting his lobes for infection. She's picking up his hand and examining under his fingernails.

Karl's rock star image is fading by the second.

I know I need to act fast. Glancing around the room, I search for someplace secure to rest my eyes. Porcelain dogs. Porcelain saints. A pinecone bunny. A wreath made of shellacked Oreos. Panicked, I alight on the family portraits lined up on the windowsill. They are airbrushed, framed. I feel, momentarily, safe. But in a matter of seconds, I have identified the true origin of Karl's blue-eyed, red-haired rocker brawn: Ireland. Karl descends from a long line of pale, plump Irish people who beam at me from 8 x 11s, pink-cheeked great-uncles and great-great-uncles primped and propped and scrubbed clean by their wives, then filled to the brim with tea and sausages. When I turn back to Karl, I could swear his face has bleached a few shades.

"That sounds like a nice job," Mrs. Karl is saying, hands refolded innocently around her knees. It's a few seconds before I realize she's still referring to me. "I'd love to travel someplace someday. The Bahamas. The Bermuda." The Bermuda? The Bermuda? My head starts to pound, a small pickax between my eyes. "Someplace nice and sunny," she says, sighing. She turns back to Karl. "You need to be careful in the sun, you know, honey. Next time I'm out, I'll pick you up some sunscreen."


Back on the road in Karl's black Saab Turbo 9000 with the two amp-eight driver audio system, I am part frightened by what just happened and part dreading what must happen next. Karl is jamming to Korn, hot damp air is blasting through the sunroof, and I am trying to control my headache by recalling Hannah's advice about talking gently to my cranium. Unfortunately, contrary to the spirit of the exercise, all that comes to mind is Screw you, cranium! The only spot of comfort in this fiasco is the anticipation of gloating when I recap the afternoon for Andrew.

If my best friend Hannah tends to be abstract, my best friend Andrew defines concrete. The man is made of calculators and train schedules, Bic pens and neckties, packs of minty fresh gum. He is a law student at Penn, lives in Chestnut Hill, and reads books with words like "Earn," "Win" and "10 Tips" in the titles. I tell him he's going to end up one of those guys who paces on train platforms, barking into his cell phone, crunching on antacids, heart about to leap screaming from his chest.

"That will never be me," Andrew says with mock sincerity. Ever since his dad's bypass surgery, I joke about this because it terrifies me. "I will never have a cell phone."

My two best friends have little in common besides their friendships with me. They try hard at conversation, but everything they say just misses the other. Hannah's words waft past Andrew's ears. Andrew's zing over Hannah's head. I watch their conversations like cartoons, complete with whaps and blams and whooshs.

Andrew: So, how's the psych school treating you?

Hannah: Oh, pretty well, I guess. I'm learning a lot. That's the important thing.

Andrew: I thought making money was the important thing.

Hannah (thoughtful): I know what you mean. It's easy to forget why we do what we do...to lose our centers. We need to be careful not to neglect our spiritual side.

Andrew (confused): But I love neglecting my spiritual side.

Eventually, my two best friends wind up silent and perplexed in each other's presence. Hannah takes Andrew far too seriously. Andrew can't conceive of someone so lacking in irony. I figure I'm somewhere in between. Part of me views life with Andrew's casual distance, roughhousing with it, boxing it into bad puns, slinging an arm around its shoulders and buying it a martini. Another part of me knows that nothing, absolutely nothing, rolls right off me.

Technically speaking, I have a repartee with Andrew that I'll never have with Hannah; some of this stems from the fact that Hannah doesn't watch TV. Andrew and my conversations are sharp, subtle, almost scriptlike, relying on a shared history of college and pop culture that requires little explication. With Hannah, conversation is more patient. It requires more pauses and thoughts and words. Sometimes I wish I could toss out a reference like "pork chops and applesauce," knowing she'd be right there with me. (She wouldn't. I tried it once and she gave me a brochure about the dangers of fatty acids.) Despite all their differences, however, both my best friends think the rock star/mother curse is in my head.

"No one's mother is that bad," Andrew insists.

"They are."

"They're not."

"Why would I make this stuff up?"

"You're not making it up. You're just exaggerating. Like always."

By "always," Andrew is referring to life since he met me: freshman year of college. Both Andrew and I went to Wissahickon, a small, expensive school made of brick and pine trees in the hills of central Pennsylvania. Technically, we met while passing a Nerf ball between our chins during an awkward freshman icebreaker. But our first real conversation was on a Saturday, one month later, when the rest of our dorm was still out partying and both of us had retreated, half drunk, to the basement "lounge" to watch late-night reruns of The Brady Bunch.

"You know," Andrew said. We were sitting side by side on the single puke-green couch that hadn't yet been stolen. "Jan doesn't get the credit she deserves. She's a cute girl."

"Maybe." It was the Grand Canyon episode, part one of the three-parter when Bobby and Cindy get lost in the hills, the gang gets thrown in jail, and Alice rides backward on a mule. "But Greg's the real babe of the show," I said, slurring so "babe of the show" sounded alarmingly, but sort of interestingly, like "Barbarino." "Remember the one where he called himself Johnny Bravo?"

"Almost as good as the one where he made Mike's den into a bachelor pad," Andrew said, earning my instant respect. "That episode is what made me lobby to turn my parents' garage into an apartment."

I snuck a glance at him. He was wearing the Wissahickon uniform: khakis, Tevas, fleece pullover, and a dirty baseball cap swiveled backward. He was cute, in a generic sort of way. "So did you?"

"I tried. It was freezing and full of power tools and giant spiders. The groovy chicks didn't exactly come running."

When the show was over, we lapsed into a few rounds of "Bob-BY! CIN-dy!" mountain-call impressions, then discussed the other kids in our dorm and discovered our opinions were the same about virtually all of them. And finally, because we were drunk, and because it was late, and because there was nothing left to talk about, we kissed. Everyone kissed everyone in college. Sitting alone in a dorm lounge at 3:00 A.M. on a Saturday, there really seemed no other plausible way to get up and say good night.

But even in that first kiss, it was obvious something was missing between us. Our kisses were too kind, too considerate. We paused for Andrew to adjust a contact lens. I sneezed; he drew back and said "gesundheit." We were too unself-conscious around each other too fast. Yet, for the next six weeks, we made a valiant attempt to be a couple. We slept together (but never "slept together," a gut instinct for which I am eternally grateful). We stored things in each other's rooms: his saline solution on my dresser, my tampons in his desk drawer. We went to breakfast in our pajamas. We tried to fight, but they were stupid fights (which is the best episode of Three's Company? which is better, Cocoa Krispies or Puffs?) and there were always smiles twitching on our faces, as if we were two actors trying to stay composed during a love scene but ready to dissolve into hysterics, link arms, wander off the set and grab a chili dog.

By December, we admitted -- to the chagrin of my mother, who had fallen madly in love with Andrew over Parents Weekend -- that we were just good friends, friends who were both lonely and liked bad cereal and sitcoms. Still, many people insist that Andrew and I will one day end up together. Between us, it's become a running gag.

"You're way too blond," I tell him. "You're one of those healthy, happy-go-lucky blond guys who bug the hell out of me."

"You're one of those brooding dark-haired chicks," he replies. "You people make me tense."

"You just don't like me because I'm not a lawyer."

"And you don't like me because I don't play rock 'n roll." Sometimes Andrew accents this line with a few moments of awkward air guitaring. It's one of his habits, like wearing socks with sandals, that I've told him he really should try to break.

"If only you were gay," I sigh. "Then we'd have the perfect '90s friendship."

Now, even though Andrew and I dated for just forty-one days eight years ago, the experience has entitled us to a certain familiarity when it comes to each other's love lives. It gives us the right to chuckle lightly and say things like "oh, that" and "I forgot you did that" and (see above) "you're just exaggerating, as usual." Having dated for forty-one days eight years ago also rules out our ever completely approving of anyone the other person dates. This is because you understand, on some subconscious level, they chose that person over you.

For example, Andrew's current girlfriend. Her name is Kimberley. Kim-ber-ley. It sounds like an adverb or adjective. I could use it to describe a vacation spa ("where expert masseuses will kimberley relieve your sore muscles") or a Mexican villa ("where the kimberley, gauze-draped beds will float you to sleep under the stars").

Like all of Andrew's law-school girlfriends, he and Kimberley do a lot of debating. Whether movies are good or bad. How big a tip a waiter deserves. Where to get the best pizza in Center City and the cheapest place to park and/or fastest way to get there. It's a different kind of arguing than the halfhearted pop-culture disagreements Andrew and I had in college. With Kimberley, it's more like legal foreplay: heated, stubborn, packed with legalese, yet groping each other the entire time.

In the end, of course, I want Andrew to be happy. I will support his decisions. I will endure his habits. I will delicately avert my eyes when he debates with his girlfriends. I will be kind to these women and accompany them to ladies' rest rooms in restaurants and talk to them about candid, girlish things as we pee -- how our makeup is smearing in the heat, how PMSed we are -- topics that are exclusively female and therefore qualify us as having bonded.

And I will take Andrew's advice seriously. Like Hannah, he is often more sensible about my life than I am. Whenever he argues me on the meet-the-mother point, however, I can conveniently remind him of the night I met his mother for the first time: Thanksgiving Day, freshman year, at his parents' house in rural Vermont where his mother, over the peach pie and coffee, made him perform "Over the River and Through the Woods" on his old trombone.


It is silent as Karl parks outside his apartment. We didn't speak much on the ride home, though the tunes were so loud it didn't feel obvious. Now, it feels obvious. The silence is thick, waxy, difficult. The car smells like the lasagna his mother handed him as we were leaving, which now slumbers on the floor of the backseat, heavy with congealing cheese. It has just started to rain again, drops assaulting the windows like thousands of drumming fingernails. I wonder if it feels as symbolic to Karl as it does to me.

"Coming down?" Karl asks.

I stare at my lap, considering the offer. If I go inside Karl's basement apartment, I can predict every detail of what will happen next: the way he'll toss the lasagna on the counter and crank up the Limp Bizkit, followed by the round of sex on his scratchy tiger-print blanket. I have a flash of Karl's Celtic-white arms and legs, scruff picked clean by his mother, breath smelling like buttery crackers. And after, the way he'll pluck at his guitar, shirtless, shoeless, forking cold lasagna straight from the pan. I can already imagine the noise of it, the sweat of it. The noise and sweat of it.

"I don't know," I say, affecting a yawn. "I'm really tired. I think I need to go home and unwind."

Karl frowns. He takes his hand off my knee. "What's going on?"

"What do you mean?" I poke at a hole in the seat cushion, burying my finger to the knuckle.

Karl shrugs, waiting. He is very good at waiting. Maybe it's all the time spent in his head. "Usually, when people say they have to unwind," he says, "there's something that wound them up to begin with. That's what I mean."

It is always, always, in moments like these that rock stars will surprise you. Just when their image has begun to splinter and crack, just when their true self is starting to peek through, they will say something surprising, something insightful, something to catch me off guard.

"It's not that kind of unwind," I try to explain, forcing myself not to look at his biceps or chest-ceps or suddenly attractively earnest blue eyes. "Honestly. It's just...I have some stuff to do. Laundry. Bills. Errands. I haven't fed Leroy since, like, Wednesday."

This is not true and Karl knows it. To his credit, he doesn't accuse me of lying. He just watches me, direct and unblinking, while my guilty glance skitters from his denim lap to his AC/DC key ring to the floor mat, littered with empty coffee cups and scratched, sticky guitar picks. "I know," he says, and I can feel his eyes roaming around inside my conscience. "You want to go home so you can work on that book."


The concept for the book is this: it will be a guide to dating rock stars. It will be part fiction, part nonfiction. It will be part humor, part personal health. It will qualify as sociology, how-to, reference, and the performing arts. Each chapter will focus on a different kind of musician -- an ambassador from the instrumental genre, if you will -- and what to expect (and not expect) if you date them. I consider it a public service, a way of using my collective experience to better the world. Maybe, as a bonus, I'll figure out where my own rock star is hiding.

As of yet, I haven't actually started writing the book. I've taken notes, made lists, scribbled ideas. My latest brainstorm is to begin each chapter with songs from a would-be mix tape readers can play as they read along. It would function like any good mix should: triggering a memory, evoking a mood, recalling an especially regrettable year of the 1980s. Capturing the tone and lyric of your life in a particular moment.

The Book With Mix Tape idea grew out of my original scheme, which was Movies That Smell. I still think this idea has merit. The concept is this: you sit in the movie theater and can actually smell the scenes as you watch them.

Examples:

a) Mystic Pizza = Italian sausage and pepperoni.

b) Beaches = sunscreen and ocean breeze.

c) Forrest Gump =

"But what do you do if it's a war movie?" Andrew had asked, after I called him to relay my plan. "Or are all the scenes going to be ones that would smell good?" I could practically hear his brain working over the phone, a series of popping cash register drawers. "That means you're basically ruling out all movies set in major cities. The Rockys. The Godfathers. Taxi Driver. Anything Woody Allen. You're going to have to pick ones set only in places that smell good...like the south of Spain. Like Sevilla." He paused. "Did I ever tell you how it smells like oranges in Sevilla?"

I did mention that Andrew was practical-minded. He also has a tendency to get carried away with his own good sense sometimes, questioning and rationalizing until there's nothing left of a great idea but a few conjunctions. Whenever possible, he also likes to flaunt the fact that he studied abroad our junior year -- "Sevilla," he calls it, accent and all -- and I, because of lead vocalist Win Brewer (see Chapter Eight), did not.

Hannah had a more personal take on Movies That Smell.

"That's so you, Eliza," she smiled. "You want to enhance reality. Magnify it, stretch it. You become unsettled when things are too real."

It was then that I decided the world wasn't ready for Movies That Smell (plus, Andrew had started scaring me with legal talk about people with allergies). So I've redirected my focus: a Book With Mix Tape is the way to go. I haven't told either best friend about it. Karl knows there is a book, but not what the book's about. Maybe I won't tell anyone until it's finished.

Because, for now, I'm thinking this book is a pretty good idea. A valuable social resource, a clever book + music marketing concept. Or, it's what my elementary school art teacher was trying to warn my mother about after I made Michael Jackson's head out of papier-mâché. "Eliza has so much creative potential," she said, sighing. "I just worry about how she's choosing to harness it."

Copyright © 2003 by Elise Juska

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2006

    Not for women only...

    Juska's deeply pleasurable novel transcends its chick-lit trappings. Packed with hysterical pop-culture references and moments of genuine insight, it's the kind of book that will have you both nodding your head and laughing out loud. You don't need to be a child of the '80s--or a female--to appreciate such high-quality, flat-out fun writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2003

    A Let-Down

    Getting Over Jack Wagner proved to be a waste of my time. The main character, Eliza, had many dimensions and great depth, but the story line was very shallow. While it was fun to revisit the 80's, I felt that the book ended abruptly, without truly addressing the changes Eliza was supposedly making. It is never necessary to have a fairy tale ending - but some closure would have been nice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2003

    sharp and witty

    A wonderful book--both my wife and I enjoyed this crisply written, well-paced first novel. Although the narrator is single, young, and female, the book is really a broadly appealing, universal study of relationships. By mixing elements of pop- culture, dating etiquette, and one vintage 80's era popstar/soap-opera-god, Elise Juska presents an entirely engaging character struggling with the larger questions we ask ourselves when searching for the elusive 'right' relationship. And although the story is immensly readable (meaning: fun), it is never trivial--nor does it provide any easy answers to the dating/relationship game. Because of this, the book really stands apart from so many other books about young single women. I'm a 36 year old male reader, and I found much to identify with in the struggle, the search, the realizations, and the hopes of the main character, Eliza. The novel is built around her sharply drawn (and fall down funny) narrator's voice--both the voice of a distinct generation--and also a voice that beyond the trappings of age. Plus, the inclusion of intelligent song 'suggestions' at the beginning of each chapter allows for a constant mental soundtrack--further deepening the overall feel of the novel. All in all, really enjoyable and thoughtfully written. I highly recommend this book

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    amusing, but insightul trip down memory lane

    Eliza Simon thinks the world spotlights only rock stars, especially those from the exciting eighties. However, trying to forge relationships with almost famous (at least in New Jersey) musicians always end up failing, as many of her boyfriends see her as a one hit wonder. How poor her record is hits home when she feels the noise of her sister¿s pregnancy and her best friend¿s engagement. Eliza knows her latest relational flop hurts deeper than usual because those her age whom mean something to her seem so adult now. This time it is more than just a bad music interlude. She hides from everyone in a quest to reassess why only musical losers place her heart on fire while wondering if she needs to do a self-imposed Pygmalion. GETTING OVER JACK WAGNER is a fun introspective look at a twenty something female wondering how she was left behind as her friends and family seem grown up to her. References to the eighties, including the General Hospital actor in the title, add nostalgia (hard to believe nostalgia over the eighties) to a charming tale. Though at times the audience will want to shout at the lead protagonist to get on with her life, fans will appreciate Elise Juska¿s amusing, but insightul trip down memory lane. Harriet Klausner

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