When I Listen to the Beatles, I Can Smell Him

I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing over the last few weeks. It started with my childhood friend being here, then morphed into something else. I started to dig out some of my college essays. Buried in my words were moments I had forgotten, emotions either healed or already celebrated. Life is a cacophony of  pain and possibility.

The following memoir essay was something I wrote in college. The assignment was to describe a place that was important to us and invoked strong emotions. The professor chose a few students to read their assignments out loud, asked us to take notes, and give productive feedback. I was mortified as I started hearing my classmates’ assignments. I had not written anything similar. While their work painted pictures of grand vacations, childhood homes, and local attractions, I had written about one singular night. Shrinking in my seat, I just knew I had failed.

Towards the end of class, the professor announced she had one last essay she wanted heard, one that she thought was particularly visual, and completely out of the box. She commented that sometimes we get caught up in “the big picture” and forget to look at the little details in life. Then she read my essay out loud.

When I Listen to the Beatles, I Can Smell Him

The soft squished pillow surrounded my head as I buried my nose deeply, trying to pull the scent of him from its insides, a mix of incense and Marlboro. The night air seeped into the room carrying sounds of crickets chirping. Branches of a Mountain Laurel scratched at the screen, tap, tap, tapping to the beat of music escaping into the night.

Tall slender candles nestled in empty wine bottles illuminated the darkness, their wax dripping and mounding down the glass. One sat on top of a big black speaker in a corner of the room, and as Prince’s precarious tunes pumped out steady beats of bass, the candle trembled.  I looked up to see his silhouette flickering across the wall. He sat on his knees in the middle of the room, bending over stark white sheets of music paper, pages glowing in their nakedness. Still frustrated with me for waiting until the last minute to complete my music theory assignment, his tense shoulders hunched forward. Without his help, I would probably fail my class. He took a sip of beer, condensation dripping off his hands, and looked over at me. Sheepishly I smiled. It seemed enough, and his scowl turned to forgiveness.

I lay silently on the floor, the bed above me covered in layers of old orange Afghans, the edges frayed and tattered. All the sheets and blankets were in a heap, slumped at one end of the bed, casualties of a restless night. Dirty dishes, glasses and a full ashtray decorated the nightstand, remnants of late night studying and single life. On top of another speaker, in the opposite corner, smoke signals from burning incense danced delicately to the ceiling.  The scent wasn’t strong, but alluring, subtle intoxication, permeating the walls with a brown, earthy smell.

The walls were lined with posters of great jazz artists, operas and Alaska. Amidst the art were hooks holding baseball caps, hiking hats, and a rainbow-colored knit beret. The beret smelled of sweaty summer nightclubs in Austin, performing with his band at The Black Cat. Behind me was a thick, dark oak dresser that lined almost the whole wall between the closet door and the door to the rest of the world. A large mirror hung above it, cluttered with postcards, pictures, and awards. The dimness made it difficult to make out the faces in the pictures clearly, but somewhere in the chaos was a picture of us at his niece’s first birthday, sandwiched between pictures of his family and his fat black cat. The mirror reflected the open window, catching the curtains floating, and the walls shimmering in the candle infused moonlight.

The farthest wall was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, holding hundreds of CD’s, records, tapes, sheet music and books. His book collection was diverse and unpredictable, housing titles from Nietzsche and Kahlil Gibran to various Bibles and textbooks.Several saxophones, a flute, a guitar and expensive music equipment also adorned the shelves. The cases were well-worn, but carefully cleaned, stuffed full of explosive sounds of past performances. It was his room, my coveted retreat.

The assignment was simple, or so he said.  The professor gave me a recording of music by the Beatles, Lovely Rita. It was my job to listen to it, analyze it, and then write down measure by measure, chord by chord, the music behind the words. I was dumbfounded. Oboe performance was my musical talent, not theory. In fact, my major was now English, a decision made too late into the semester to drop any music classes without a failing grade. He was my only saving grace. Music was his passion.

He sat,stretched out his arm and turned off Prince, slipping the Beatles tape into the player. With a pencil in one hand, and the other on my head, gently running his fingers through my hair, he began. The tune was amusing, whimsical, melting the stiffness of his shoulders. Notes leapt quickly on the pages. This was an easy assignment for him. I was in awe.

Again I buried my head in the pillow. I listened intently as the pencil quickly sketched notes on the paper, clothing them in measures of chords and rhythms. Sometimes in the silence of rewinding, I could hear a muffled tick, tock from the tall mahogany clock outside the door. My eyes were closed. His breathing was hard and focused.

“Why couldn’t this have been a more simple song?” I thought, fighting sleep, “Like When I’m 64?”

The song played a hundred times before I finally fell asleep. Dreams of life at 64 roused my thoughts, as I pictured us sitting on a front porch, rocking. Sounds of ocean waves and seagulls, scents of salt and hot sand. Hot breath kissed the back of my neck and I awoke. He was finished. My sleepy eyes tried to make out the numbers on the clock. The clock’s fuzzy red glare flashed the time – 3:00 a.m. Full, sexy sounds of jazz replaced the Beatles.

My body was stiff from sleeping on the floor, but soon relaxed by the touch of his strong hands massaging my shoulders and back. His fingers pressed firmly into the muscles, playing along with the music. A slight chill trickled down my arm  into my hands, as his fingertips brushed over them, back and forth, until gracefully our fingers locked together and we lay still. I could feel his heart beating against my back, his long arms draped around me.

We fell asleep, listening to the music, candlelight flickering, regretful of the morning.

* Today I am also guest posting at The Hindsight Letters .

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