Nine-year-old me hoofing it down a wooded road of vinyl homes, delivering the afternoon paper at nightfall. A streetlamp turns on, spotlighting my wretchedness. I sing the “Welcome Back Kotter” theme song so hard that I make myself cry.
I’m seventeen. My friend Lenny is late picking me up to go surfing. I call his house a number of times, but the line is busy. According to surf shop reports, the waves are insanely perfect. Butterflies bang their wings against my aorta. I trespass into the “good living room.” The gold velour furniture and glass table are strictly reserved for my mom and her coke pals, but the CD player is in there, and Billy Joel is calling to me. I play “Piano Man” at full volume and fall into the gold chair. I sing that shit with more pathos than an Atlantic nor’easter. When the song fades out, the unceremonious laughter of Lenny disgraces me. I turn to see him doubled over in the doorway pissing himself, his long blonde hair thrashing about. “You like Billy Joel? What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks.
I’m thirty. Mike and Bob are thirty-one. We’re sitting shoulders in Mike’s Tundra, watching the tide fill in. We have nowhere to be. We’ve designed our lives as such for this very cause. There’s a dark horizontal cloud line above the horizon. The rain falls diagonally. Our favorite surf spot is about to get epic. I brought a CD for the occasion. I slide it into Mike’s player and sing along to “The Good Times Are Killing Me.” For once, Bob doesn’t sing over me. Next year his aorta will burst because of an untreated kidney condition.
I’m twenty-six getting married for the first time in Cortona, Italy. The rehearsal dinner is taking place in a medieval tenement turned trattoria. My parents. Her parents. My sibling. Her two siblings. Three of my surf buds. Three of her fellow feminists, two of whom are genderbending. I paid for the entire thing by cutting down trees—white oaks, red oaks, white pines, maples—expanding suburban space for the 1990’s real estate bubble. The grappa goes to my head and I start crooning “That’s Amore” from the head of the table. To my surprise, everyone in the restaurant loves it, especially my father-in-law. He loves it too much. When the applause subsides, he stands to make a toast, the grappa and gothic architecture sopping his brain. “Hear ye, hear ye! My Sheila is going to consummate her love tonight!”
Third grade music appreciation. In other classes, I’m the second or third worst student, but here and now I’m teaching the teacher what’s what. It’s share day. I brought my favorite album, Harry Chapin’s Greatest Stories Live. Harry and I are singing “Taxi” in front of my classmates. He died in a car crash last summer; ergo, I sound livelier than him. We learned about love in the back of a Dodge—I sing it as if I’m on my umpteenth heartbreak. Ms. Dinsmore is nonplussed. She lets me continue. I nail the finale for her. And me, I’m flying in my taxi/Taking tips, and getting stoned/I go flying so high, when I’m stoned. I’m dumb to the meaning of love in a Dodge. My dad sells weed. My mom smokes it. But I’m illiterate to the terms high and stoned. Regardless, this third-grade flunky has Ms. Dinsmore all dewy. I’ve shamed the yellow submarines and Jacksonian ABC’s of my scholastic superiors. At year’s end, Ms. Dinsmore awards me the Super Singer award, a laminated index card with a Superman emblem. It remains my highest academic achievement. My mom still has it in a keepsake box along with my baby teeth.
Twenty years old and I finally got my dumb ass to community college. After nine spring credits of philosophy, my brain is a mushroom cloud. Me and my buds are renting a shack on Nantucket for summer break. When not serving soft-shell crab aioli sauce sandwiches to Jimmy Buffet, Mariah Carey, or Tommy Mottola… when not surfing southwest wind swell caused by a Bermuda high pressure system stationed off the Carolinas… when not actively hating the island’s 1993 nouveau riche materialism, I’m in my sweatbox bedroom, French-kissing the cover portrait of Viking’s The Portable Marx. By early August, no one has ever read more Marx than me, not even Engels. When my twenty-one-year-old friends hit the bars, I hang in with Karl. What else can I do? My girlfriend Sheila is home in Boston for the summer working at her mother’s antique store. She knows about me and Karl. She’s totally cool with it. My friends disapprove. They think Karl is bad for me. They say he’s turned me bitter and combative. Proving them wrong, I place Bob’s boombox in our bedroom window and blast “It’s Not Unusual” into the quiet summer haze. My friends are littered around the front yard. Todd and Mike repair a surfboard. Bob and his girlfriend Sara sit in our cherry tree. Ned is catching a tan, twiddling his chest hairs. I kick open the door and sprint at my dead Aunt Lee’s Datsun. I leap onto the trunk, hurdle the roof, and cartwheel off the hood. Upon landing, I swivel my hips and pitch-perfectly harmonize the chorus. I do to Tom Jones what Marx did to the Hegelian dialectic. I smash capitalism with sarcastic gyrations and schmaltzy power vocals. Everyone falls to the ground, laughing with and at me. Except Sara. She’s laughing at the opium of the people.
I’m eight. My sister Leah is four. We’re tucked and spooned under my Star Wars sheets. Our parents are at a Roy Orbison concert. Our babysitter is in the living room having sex to “Hot Blooded.” We don’t know but we understand the sound of it all. Leah is crying. I’m whimpering. I sing “Leah” into her ear. I sing her Roy Orbison eponym until the babysitter’s boyfriend dies.
I’m the age of Christ, sitting on a cracked porcelain throne in Michoacán, stricken by a vicious bout of diarrhea. The tiled flooring, ceiling, and walls are perfect for my Jim Morrison timbre. I rip a heavy “Riders on the Storm” to relieve the cramping and burning. It half works.
Forty-five and I’m finally loving life. I’m wearing my fish-pattern apron, stirring a simmering pot of Bolognese, trying to keep this unforeseen joy in check while Sara and our five-year-old son have a dance party in the kitchen. The old wretched me is in his death throes. I serenade him to help ease his passing. His favorite song is “Lover Lover Lover.” I play the song and silently dedicate it to him. As the chorus approaches, Ronan shushes me. I grant him the floor. He sings the refrain as if braving his first sorrow, sounding a crescendo of my best self.