The ringing phone woke me up. I've never been a person who can sleep through a ringing phone. It stems from not having many friends in high school, and going through long stretches without having a working cell phone. A missed call on the house phone was simply missed, and I got into the habit of scrambling like a dog for any scrap of social contact.
So despite the brutal hangover, I thrashed around on the bed until I figured out where the nightstand was, and grabbed at my phone.
This particular scrap of social contact was coming from Charlie.
Just like there had been no reason meet him out for a drink so he could tell me not to hook up with his girlfriend, there was no reason for me to answer his call. I knew already what he was going to say: he was going to tell me what an a--hole I was for trying to hook up with her anyway.
My head was pounding. It felt like there was someone in there beating an empty oil drum with a metal pipe. My mouth felt like it had been burned with acid and left out in the sun to dry. But fair is fair. I took the call.
"Hello," I said in an extra-gravelly hangover voice.
"Hey, Nate," he said. "It's Charlie."
"I know," I said. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, I'm calling to tell you that just like I said, you're an a--hole. You're an a--hole, and you made Carrie Anne cry. I hope you're proud of yourself."
I sighed. The events of the previous night began flashing through my mind: getting drunk at the gig, barely making it through set, bringing Carrie Anne back to my place to "hang", and then going hard for her. And puking. At least twice.
"No man, I'm not proud," I said. "And you're right, I am an a--hole. And I'm not quite sure why she cried, but do me a favor and let her know that I'm sorry, and I regret my actions. Actually... You can let her know I regret pretty much everything I've ever done."
"Good," he said. "And I also wanted to tell you that if you try to talk to her again, I'm going to kick your a-s."
"No, you're not," I said. I may have been exposed as a villain, but I wasn't going to let this guy get the best of me. "We don't have to be friends, but don't pretend you can kick my a-s. You've never kicked anybody's a-s in your life."
"f--k you, Nate. You don't know me."
"Yes I do. You quote French literary theorists. I'm from Winnipeg. Who would you bet on? Just be a good guy and tell Carrie Anne I'm sorry."
"Don't try to talk to her again, man," he repeated.
"Don't worry, Charlie," I said. "I think we've both turned the page on this relationship."
He started to say something else, but I ended the call. I needed water and to take a long piss.
I stayed in all that Sunday, and called in sick to work on Monday. It was a bad hangover, but more than that, I felt heartsick and lost. I stayed in bed most of the day, got up and ate a few sandwiches, listlessly drank a beer, and went back to bed for a while. I tried to read, tried to look at the computer, but I couldn't do anything. I couldn't focus on anything except my supreme dissatisfaction with myself.
Monday wasn't as bad. I found myself wanting to feel even worse, wanting to feel enough sorrow to justify skipping work, but I had to finally come to terms with what had happened.
I sat with my guitar and worked with E and B for a while, not playing anything in particular. As I strummed I tried to figure out an appropriate metaphor for Carrie Anne and me, and this was the closest that I could get: If our relationship could have been considered a forest, I was not satisfied with simply leaving the forest when we first broke up. As I moved further from that forest, the more amazing it became, and the more I missed it. I could not move on, and I could not find interest in any other forest as long as that first now-mythic forest was still out there.
So I had to burn the f--king forest down. Drastic, I know, but at least on the scorched earth a new forest would be allowed to grow.
It wasn't much of a basis for a song, but I hummed a little bit about being lost in the woods while I went back and forth between E and B. Sometimes I threw in an A.
And I reassured myself that I would now be able to make an emotional investment in Megan. And even if she said she wasn't interested in a relationship, she sure seemed down for sex, and she was going to be the singer in my new band, Gun Metal Grey. So maybe it was for the best that the whole Carrie Anne situation was in the rearview mirror. Hell, it had been a no-win situation anyway.
* * * *
Megan called on Tuesday when I was at work, and we decided to meet up for coffee at a downtown cafe. I figured she wanted to chat about the band, which was perfect for me. I was done with Terry's shows and I had nothing else to distract me. I was now ready to laser-focus on Gun Metal Grey.
She was already at the coffee shop when I arrived, sitting in a big easy chair with a small paper take-out cup on the round table in front of her. I gave her a smile and a wave, came over and dropped off my coat on the easy chair across from her, and then went up to the counter to get a coffee.
I guess I didn't pick up on the vibe right away, because Megan has always been hot or cold, but she did seem a bit severe when I dropped off my coat. She had her hair pulled back in a pony tail, and her leather jacket was still zipped up. All business, no smile. I guess I thought nothing of it.
When I had my coffee, I came back and sat down across from her.
"So," she began, "what the f--k?"
"I, wuh... What the... What f--k?"
"Carrie Anne gave me a call the other night and told me a little story about you taking her back to your place and trying to f--k her. That's the what the f--k."
She looked pissed. I wasn't sure how to respond to this. What was I being busted for here?
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm not exactly sure why you're so upset about this."
Megan made a jaw-drop action. "We've been sleeping together, and you tried to get my good friend into bed. My good friend who is in a relationship. And you're not sure why I would be upset?"
"Well, yeah, okay," I said, sorting it out in my mind. "We've slept together a few times, but you've said that you didn't want to get into a relationship. What did you call it? You didn't want to get into an emotional quagmire."
"When was that, after the first time?" She was pissed. "And you didn't think things might have changed after the second time? I mean, come on Nate, I agreed to join your band. Do you think I was looking for a band to join? I did that because you talked me into it, and then I let you sleep with me. And then at the first opportunity you're out trying to sleep with my friend! Do you have any idea how used that makes me feel?"
"Look, I didn't use you. I asked you to form a band with me because I want you to be in my band. I think you'd be good at it. And the sex was mutual. You were as into it as I was."
She shook her head. "You obviously weren't that into it if you were cracking on Carrie Anne like, two nights later. And she has a boyfriend! I mean, do you have any respect for women at all?"
"Wha-- That's just character assassination! Okay, yeah, she has a boyfriend, but they're in an open relationship, which means they can sleep with other people if they choose to. It's not like I was asking her to cheat or anything. And you can't really say that I was cheating on you, since we're not going out!"
People were turning to look. Megan bit her lip, and then, in even, measured tones she answered me. "You've got all the loopholes figured out, don't you? Okay, so you didn't do anything wrong. You're just an innocent player, trying to get laid."
"No," I said. "Look, I know this whole thing makes me look kind of... "
I paused, and sadly, I couldn't think of a more appropriate adjective. "Yeah," I said. "Slimy. But look at it from my point of view. You're there, and you're sending some unquestionably mixed messages. You're willing to go to bed with me, but you're repeatedly reaffirming that you don't want to date me. And Carrie Anne is there, coming out to see me without her boyfriend. And she's already said she can choose to sleep with other guys if she wants to. And then she comes back to my apartment. What am I supposed to think? I mean, you've got to admit, there are mixed messages there too."
She gave me a snide smile. "Yes, Nate," she said sarcastically. "All the girls are giving you mixed messages. And you're definitely interpreting them in whatever way plays to your best advantage. Poor Nate. All the girls are duping him into trying to f--k them."
I sat back in my chair. "Well," I finally said. "I don't even know what I'm supposed to say to that."
"You don't know much, do you Nate?" Megan said. She shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Good luck with your band."
"So what, that's it?" I said. "You're backing out of the band?"
She started to get up, but paused on the edge of her seat. "Maybe you feel that technically you haven't done anything really wrong here, Nate, and if so, that's fine. I just feel that you might not be the type of person in whom I should choose to invest my time."
Megan stood up and looked me in the eye. "In other words Nate, I don't think I want to know you anymore." Then she picked up her bag, slung it over her shoulder, and walked out of the cafe, leaving me alone again to sip my coffee and ponder how things had fallen apart.
* * * *
A few nights later I bumped into Terry on the stairs of our apartment building. He was heading out as I was coming in from work. It was the first time I'd seen him since the gig, which I'd almost torched by getting way too loaded before playing. He smiled when he saw me though, and a big weight lifted off my shoulders.
"Hey, Terry," I said, "I'm sorry about drinking so much. I hope I didn't screw things up too badly."
"Ah, don't worry about it," he said. "Learn from it though, okay? You can't play if you're pissing and puking all over yourself. You want to get your own band going, right? Well, you'll have to step up the professionalism, if you know what I mean. If you want to run your own show, you can't be an idiot all the time. No offense."
I nodded. "No worries, I get it. Well, I guess I'll see you around."
He clapped me on the shoulder. "Sure, man. Hey, stop by anytime you want. We can jam."
"Sure. Thanks man."
He gave me a concerned look. "You doing okay? You down or something?"
"No, I'm okay," I said. "Ups and downs. Rough week, I guess you could say."
He grinned. "Trouble with the stripper? Or the ex?"
I laughed, despite the anguish I'd been going through. "Both out of the picture, I'm afraid."
"Right." He nodded. "Yeah. Well, we've all been through that now and again, huh? You'll be okay. Drop by sometime. We'll talk."
I nodded. "What have you been up to?" I asked.
Terry smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "Busy-busy, man. I've been pimping out the new book, working on some new paintings. I'm starting a new book soon too. This one's going to be a novel. I don't know how that's going to turn out, but what the hell, right? Listen, I gotta go. Take care, okay?"
We shook hands and Terry was on his way. I went back up to my apartment to continue brooding on my misery.
* * * *
On the last Saturday before Christmas I kept my promise to the teenage girl Doreen from the second floor, and took her downtown to go shopping. She'd been sent into the city to avoid bullies at her previous high school, and she was in a weird state of having vitually no friends and no family around either, since her dad was a workaholic and had no idea how to parent her. Riding the subway downtown with her seemed like a pretty simple way to help her out, and I showed her around to a few stores and to one of the big downtown bookstores, which she'd been eager to check out.
The trip meant nothing to me. I was floating. I was in a weird period of transition. I'd rejected my plans of being a music writer and had decided to be a musician again, but then I'd found myself all alone and unsure of how to proceed with my music project.
As well, I'd found myself paralyzed by ennui and regret about the distant and recent past. Everything about my actions with Carrie Anne and Megan screamed what an a--hole I was. I found myself unworthy in every way. I found myself easy to despise.
I was humorless company for Doreen, but she was excited just to be getting out, so she didn't care how mopey I was. We got downtown and found the big chain bookstore, and she immediately lost herself in pursuing the shelves.
I wandered, also looking over the selves. I found the philosophy section, and a wry smile crossed my face. I was sure Charlie would have been happy to stand in this section and tell me all about the books, recommending titles for me. I let my eyes drift across the spines, taking in the names and titles...
Something caught my eye, and I had to scan back, looking for whatever it might have been. A familiar word. Yes, there it was...
... Panegyric. There it was, a white-covered book by someone named Debord. French. Of course he had to be French. I wondered if Charlie had read this guy before.
I never really asked Mitch why he had named our band Panegyric back in university. I assumed it was just because he thought it was a cool-sounding word. It meant a funeral speech, like a eulogy. That seemed cool for a rock band. But I never asked him why he thought it was cool.
I pulled the book off the shelf. Blank white cover. Some blurbs on the back. I opened the book and near the beginning was a page with two epigrams, the first being a definition of the title word:
"Panegyric expresses more than eulogy. Eulogy no doubt includes praise of the person, but it does not exclude a certain criticism, a certain blame. Panegyric entails neither blame nor criticism."
I closed the book and thought about what that meant. Panegyric contains no criticism. It expresses more than eulogy, but without blame or criticism. Could this have been what Mitch was expressing through our band?
Could he have been expressing this for himself? Could he have been giving a summation of who he was, without blame or criticism? Could it have been a simple statement of "this is me, this is all that I am", for us to accept without blame?
And having made his statement, is that why he was able to simply end the band at graduation and walk away? Changing the meaning to "this is who I was, and now that me is gone"?
I suddenly felt like I understood, and I sympathized. I looked back over the wreckage of self-doubt and self-sabotage that I had been over the last many years, and I realized that I too needed to present a funeral oration for the person I had been. I would have to present myself honestly, but without blame or criticism, and say "this is who I was. Now let's move on."
It was the Saturday before Christmas, and the store was packed. I stood in the aisle, holding the copy of Debord's book, staring off into the distance, considering what I would have to do. Like Terry, I would need to write a book explaining myself. I would need to say everything, to get it all out of the way so I could move on.
In the distance, across the store, I saw a familiar face. I focused in. It was Charlie. He was a long way off across the big store, but we made eye contact. I stood up straight, made a simple nod. He turned away, making like he didn't see me.
I knew that he and I would cross paths again. I knew that, even though Megan had backed out, I was still going to form a band. I would call the band Gun Metal Grey, and we would play shows in Toronto, and we would see how far we could go. It was possible my band would cross paths with Charlie and his band, which also meant crossing paths with Carrie Anne.
It didn't matter. I would not be the same person then. But in order to focus on writing music, I would need to clean away all my issues, clean away all my emotional entanglements, clean away all the hangups I had given myself. I would need to rid myself of the beasts of regret I carried with me. I would have to write the panegyic story for the person I used to be, that foolish, greedy, selfish person, and lay him to rest with words. By naming him I would destroy him, and from his ashes I would emerge new.
I would have to talk the old Nate away, cleanse myself with words. Words without blame or criticism. Just simple honesty.
And after I had told his story, I would be able to finally shut up.
And when I had shut up, I would be able to sing.
|This is the final chapter 30 of 30. "I Sing When You Shut Up" is the fourth novel Nolan Whyte has written for Ultimate-Guitar.com. Tell him what to do next at @nolanwhyte.|