THEO, MOVING FORWARD
Eight years in, it feels like you’re gonna die
But you get used to anything
Sooner or later it becomes your life
—BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “Straight Time”
Theo Brigham, while walking up Tenth Avenue on his way to meet a band, decides impulsively to visit an art gallery. It is the sort of decision he rarely makes and usually regrets. The gallery itself does not matter, he thinks; it is the idea of it, the surprise, the defiance of his own expectations of himself. He sends furtive glances north and south and then darts left into the first gallery he sees, maintaining his pace as he does so, fairly careening into an open doorway with a rusted–over frame—no, a frame that has been painted to look like rust. He pauses for a moment on the threshold of the place, peering inside, savoring a bit the odd sensation of shyness. He so rarely puts himself in situations like this one. Rarely makes entrances he has not planned on making.
From the doorway, he can see various installation pieces, two of which resemble giant greeting cards. One says, “Love! Love!” One says, “Trust? Ho ho!”
Then Theo catches the eye of an official–looking woman, who smiles coldly and says, “Welcome to ArtSpace.”
Theo walks out. He breathes deeply, congratulating himself on his brief adventure, feeling that he has once again fulfilled some unspoken promise. But now he must turn his mind to other things: he is going to his fourth industry showcase this week, and he has a terrible hangover. In his messenger bag is a planner. Today’s date has written on it, in Theo’s neat handwriting: Edgedwellers. 3 pm Sound–Off. 19 yr olds—good for next drive? Call Cynthia re: manager.
Theo is not thinking of the Edgedwellers when he walks into the lobby of Sound–Off Studios at three P.M., or of their incompetent manager, or of the secretary, Cynthia (though today is her thirty–second birthday, and he will buy her a bottle of champagne later). No, today Theo is thinking of being a very young man—sixteen—and hearing Springsteen’s album The Ghost of Tom Joad for the first time. He was sitting in a car with a girl.
Here is Theo in Sound–Off’s lobby, which is lined with signed and framed posters of the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Phish. Others too. All famous faces. Theo knows what he will find at the end of the hallway and through the heavy padded door: four terrified kids trying to look cool. He hopes these ones don’t have acne. One of the three acts he’s seen this week did. Acne throws him off.
Through the door Theo goes, enjoying as always the immediate hush that falls over the room when he enters it. He quickly takes in the Edgedwellers, who don’t have acne, but do have annoyingly short hair. Tony the sound man is lurking in a corner, fiddling with the sound board.
“Hey, guys,” says Theo. He walks up to the stage and shakes their limp nineteen–year–old hands in turn and prays none of them has masturbated recently. Each straightens a little when Theo greets him, and Theo is amused by their too obviously planned outfits: retro rock T–shirts and Converses all.
Theo can tell they are surprised by his appearance, and he likes this feeling; he is slim and tall and quite young–looking, even for his twenty–six years. The Edgedwellers might think that he is their age, and this gives him an advantage. He’s the one with the contracts sticking out of his messenger bag. He’s the one with the messenger bag, come to think of it: an ideal thrift store find. Exactly the right amount of wear. Theo sits on a couch twenty feet from the stage and waits for the band to play.
The lead singer is not a good–looking kid. He decides to be brave and he walks over to Theo, who is now reading a text message from his girlfriend—“bond st 2nite 10pm”—on the smallest cell phone the kid has ever seen. The kid notices this halfway through his walk and he isn’t sure whether it is a good idea to interrupt Theo, but he has already started walking and he can’t turn around now. It wouldn’t look smooth.
Theo knows the kid, whose name is Kyle, is standing in front of him, but he takes a few beats before he looks up.
Kyle says, “I just wanted to thank you because we’re, you know, we’re really grateful that Titan brought us out here to New York, and we want to say that we're hard workers.” Immediately Kyle knows this wasn’t a good idea and he should have just played the fucking song. God, thinks Kyle, why am I so uncool?
The other Edgedwellers are still pretending to tune, but they are looking at Kyle, who has taken the hit for them, they know. Each of them is silently thankful that he is not Kyle right now. They wait for Theo’s response.
“Yeah,” Theo says.
Kyle makes a hasty retreat.
Theo knows already that he won’t sign the Edgedwellers, that he will send them back to California with broken hearts but a good story to tell their friends, who will ask them about it incessantly for the next year and then forget about it. The Edgedwellers will forget about it too, later in life, much later, when they are Officedwellers, when they are so far from the Edge that the Edge could buy them a Rolling Rock in a bar and they wouldn't know. One will start a family but have a string of affairs. One will come out of the closet. One will kill himself.
But how could Theo know all this? He puts on an expression that flutters between bored and bemused, lights a cigarette, leans his head against the wall, and waits for them to play their shitty emo pop meets indie rock.
Theo is unhappy.
There is an old rummager on Bond Street and he is sifting through garbage cans. He is whistling “Star Dust,” a song that strikes Theo as lovely and comforting as he jogs by, messenger bag jostling against his left side uncomfortably—for he is late again to meet his girlfriend, Luz. Lovely, comforting, yes, thinks Theo, checking himself; but unhip. Whistling has always struck him as terribly unhip. Farmers whistle. Old men whistle. Theo cannot imagine himself whistling, ever, even by himself, even though he likes the sound of it and it reminds him of his father.
The rummager eyes Theo’s back and remembers suddenly and painfully that “Star Dust” was always the last song they played at his high school dances. Once he had a girl named Esther who wore her hair in braids.
Now Theo stops, huffing, in front of the restaurant. Through the window he can see that Luz is there already, sitting with her friend Amelia. Luz is the kind of thin that makes people follow her around rooms with their eyes. She is tall and tan—“and young and lovely,” thinks Theo, imagining that if he were a different kind of person, more casual, less afraid, he might tell her she looked like the girl from Ipanema and then do something silly like give her a noogie or tickle her. He smiles, imagining it—Luz would like that. She dresses purposefully. She is in her last year at FIT, and her wardrobe is a small work of art. She has six rings, all plain bands made of different colored stones, that she wears no matter what. She takes them off each night and puts them in a little mother–of–pearl box by the side of the bed, dons them each morning and holds up her smooth dark hands to inspect them. She says she got them from her mother, but Theo suspects they are from a former lover, the way she caresses and cares for them, the way she fingers them absentmindedly when she speaks of the past. She has kept her hair long all her life, and she brushes it so it gleams.
Luz will eat out only at sushi restaurants, so she and Theo have tried nearly all of them in the city: Neo, with its wooden floors and bamboo poles; the various Harus, with their overpriced meals and overly sticky rice; the original Nobu, with its endless waits and posh crowds. Bond Street is their favorite.
Luz should be happy, thinks Theo. She’s twenty–two, she’s lovely, and she’s sipping water that she has turned into a sick kind of diet lemonade with a lemon wedge and Sweet’n Lo. But he can see that she’s upset and he knows it’s probably something he’s done. He shifts his focus to his own reflection and considers himself. He is decent–looking. He might pass for a good person. He thinks briefly about leaving. If he turned around now, if he went home to their apartment and packed up his things—for Theo has few items of his own besides clothes—if he got on a plane and flew somewhere (Costa Rica? He’s heard it’s temperate and relatively nonpolitical), what would she do?
But now her face is so lit by candles, so breakable and young that for a moment Theo imagines he has mistaken her for someone else entirely, a child, a schoolgirl. And now Amelia has seen him and waved to him, and he is caught.
When Theo was sixteen, he had a girlfriend. Amy. He had a girlfriend named Amy and he had a band named Ruin. And he had baseball cards, and a baseball autographed by Roger Clemens, and a clock radio set to wake him up at six–thirty A.M. for school each day, and two parents, and a dog named Sam, and best of all he had an old, old Chevy that he pretended to know things about—mechanical things, practical things—but really just admired for its beauty and for what he supposed to be its romantic history. He loved thinking about the people who owned it before he did, and he made up tales about them for Amy while driving her around. Amy was blond and raggedy. Boys liked her because she was easy to talk to.
He thought he was profound and he thought everyone else was overeager. His love and hate of high school alternated with astonishing frequency and vigor. What is it, what is it, what is it that makes him remember this year—of all years!—with such fondness, though? Perhaps that his band Ruin won Boston’s annual Battle of the Bands, sponsored by WBCN. Perhaps it was Amy. Perhaps it was because he discovered The Ghost of Tom Joad. He often thinks, now, of ways to stuff these memories into a sort of supermemory: a memory of driving in his old, old Chevy, his beautiful car, with Amy in the front seat and his bandmates in the back, listening to The Ghost of Tom Joad on the way to the Battle of the Bands. Of course, this never happened, never all at once like that—of course, if Theo could remember better, he would realize that sixteen was painfully bad for him in most ways. But how he dwells on it now, walking about New York; how the longing to be sixteen again hits him sometimes between the eyes and coaxes ridiculous guttural sounds from him, especially when he is drunk; how it comes crashingly down about him when he sees himself in storefront windows, when his reflection catches him off guard!
That night. After dinner. At home. Luz and Theo make sad and tragic love and then lie on opposite sides of the bed. Theo thinks, This is ridiculous; this is a movie. All of Luz’s long fawnish limbs are gathered and twisted together and her spine is facing Theo. He traces it with a finger but makes sure not to touch her skin, thinking that at some point he should really tell Luz he thinks she is too thin.
Luz turns over urgently and Theo is pleased, thinking, Here we go; here’s where we talk. But Luz is just dreaming of something larger than she is, just fighting some sleep creation. Her dreams lately have been of elaborate murders, but she has not told anyone this.
Her skinny arm flops onto Theo’s chest, and he is crying suddenly. Theo has not cried in a few years, and he has forgotten the saltiness of it. Crying makes him think of hot, angry embarrassment: how liquids appear so suddenly, how the throat aches, how the tears themselves fall, terribly loud and hot, onto the pillow one after another, leaking over the bridge of the nose. Their trails cool quickly and soon he is snuffling, trying to suck in mucus noiselessly but failing. Luz wakes up.
“Darling.” She sits up, and her small-breasted torso looks heroic and Greek in the light from outside. She touches his forehead, and this small act of sympathy is just enough to turn the crying to panicky sobs. Theo is reduced.
“Darling, what’s the matter?” When Luz says “darling” it sounds like “darrrleen.” She’s from a family of wealthy Venezuelans.
Theo can think of nothing to say, and considers telling her just this but decides against it.
“You're too thin,” says Theo. “You look sick.”
Luz retracts her arm from his forehead as if hot tea has been spilled on it and, with great dignity, settles back into pretend sleep, facing the wall again.
Again, the wall of her spine faces Theo.
This is the story of why Theo is now working for Titan, Inc.
It begins with the first time Theo went to an industry party in New York, at the home of a Russian man he had met in his first production class at Tisch. Theo had intended to be a screenwriter, but all of his scripts kept being about music. The Russian had just started a small but fashionable record label that the majors were interested in distributing. The man was looking for new talent, and he invited Theo to a small gathering at his SoHo loft.
The gathering turned out to be about fifty people in the biggest apartment Theo had ever seen. He was nineteen and most impressed by two things: a white shag rug that occupied a third of the floor space of the area, and a large group of models who stood in a corner and took turns snorting up in the bathroom and eyeing the Russian as if he were a plate of french fries. Theo felt out of place in his Dockers and a polo shirt. It was 1997. The fashion was to look as if you had just gotten into a fight and had emerged stylishly abused.
At one point, the Russian turned off the music and made an announcement: “Guys, this is Theo! He’s going to do some production for us, if he wants to,” and at this point he winked at a rather drunk Theo, who raised his glass in the air in a jolly toasting gesture and immediately regretted it.
The models glanced at him. The Russian was waving an empty wineglass and messing with the CD player. He continued: “Check this shit out. Theo’s first single. Fucking brilliance, my friends.”