I was having a real hell of a time getting in touch with Ryan. I called his place over and over, but he never seemed to be home. His roommates took messages, but since I still hadn't hooked up a phone at my place, there was no easy way to have him reach me.
I hadn't spoken to him since I went away over the Christmas break. I didn't know how his school and work schedules might have changed, but he still worked at the gas station next to the convenience store, so it was inevitable that we would bump into each other. Conrad and Jed and I had already decided to start playing together, and Jed and I wanted to to bring Ryan in to play guitar. He was the obvious choice. Not only did I feel that we had unfinished business as band-mates, but he was also the only guitarist I really knew.
On a frigidly cold Tuesday night he stuck his head inside Sally's convenience store and spotted me standing at the counter. He smiled and came inside.
He was all dressed up his winter work gear, with his jacket on underneath his bluish-gray coveralls, a scarf around his neck, and a wool hat. "Hey, Eric," he said. "How are you?"
"Good, Ryan. Good to see you." He pulled off his leather mitt and we shook hands. His hand was ice cold from pumping gas in the freezing weather.
"I heard you were trying to reach me. I thought I'd poke my nose in and see if you were working."
"Yeah, I check to see if you're working when I show up here. And I've been calling your place. I left a few messages."
"You should have just emailed."
"Anyway," I said. "Jed and I have hooked up again. We found another drummer and we've jammed a few times. We thought maybe you'd like to come around and play a bit."
He grinned and shook his head. "Damn, dude. The last time we talked I was quitting the band, and now you're just asking me to turn straight around and join again? I was hoping you would have something to say besides that."
"Well, I'm happy to see you regardless," I said. "Even if you don't want to play with us, I would still hope that we could hang out sometime."
He checked his watch. "Yeah, me too. We should just go for coffee or a beer sometime. Hey, you know who I'm going out with now? Emily. We're not just like, enemies who occasionally make out. We're actually dating now."
"That's cool," I said. "We should double or something sometime."
"Yeah, totally. I'll see when is good for her. I should be home tomorrow night. Give me a call and we'll figure out a time." He checked his watch again. "I've got to get back out there. Talk to you soon, okay?"
He left, and I started thinking over how to bring him around to the idea of playing with us. I knew he enjoyed writing new songs and playing, even if he wasn't fantastic at either, and I knew he loved being part of the crowd at a gig. I couldn't believe that he was satisfied just quitting. He wanted to play again. He just needed to be convinced.
I talked to Lise and then called Ryan the next night, and between everyone's work and school schedules we managed to make a plan for Saturday night. Emily had a car, so she would come around and pick us up from Lise's house.
Lise wasn't thrilled with the idea. "Why am I going?" she asked while we sat in her living room, playing video games and waiting for Ryan and Emily to arrive. "He's your friend, but I don't even know her. You act all the time like she's the devil, and I'm going to end up talking to her all night while you guys are catching up."
"She's not that bad," I said. "Besides, it'll be more relaxed for everybody if it's even numbers."
They came around, and Lise and I squeezed into the back seat of Emily's little Honda, and the four of us drove down to The Cue, the big pool hall attached to the Westland Mall. It wasn't a very cool place with the university crowd, but it was a nice, neutral place where we could have a beer and talk.
We got in and took a table. The server came around, and we ordered beers. Lise tried to get a beer, but the waitress asked if she had ID, and she changed her order to coffee.
"Let the good times roll," she said dryly as she stirred in a non-dairy creamer. I gave her knee a squeeze under the table.
It was an uncomfortable scene. Previously Ryan and I had talked about the band constantly, but now it was the proverbial elephant in the room. No one wanted to mention it, even though it was the only thing we had to talk about. We cycled through all the usual chit-chat topics. School, classes, the holidays, until the conversation finally fell flat on its face. And I knew what we would talk about after that.
"So, you and Jed are playing again?" Ryan brought it up, just as I hoped he would.
"Yeah," I said, picking at the corner of my beer label. "We've played twice. You remember that guy Conrad? The screwball?"
"Oh, Eric, tell me he's not your drummer," Ryan said. "Are you kidding? Every time we've seen him there's been trouble."
"True," I said, "but you have to remember that I had an ax to grind with the guy because he was hanging around with Jasmine. He was weird, and he got really drunk, but I think I may have judged him too harshly. I mean, he's a bit much sometimes, but hell, he's been living with me for the last ten days or so, and he's really pretty calm most of the time."
"He's living with you?" Ryan's eyes bulged. "You're serious: crazy Conrad, who you punched out, is living with you."
"Yeah, can you believe that?" Lise said. "Instead of me, he asks Conrad to move in."
I paused. What the f--k did that mean? Was Lise sitting and waiting for me to ask her to move in with me? Did she feel our relationship had advanced to that stage? I'd never lived with a girlfriend before, and the prospect made me forget what the hell we'd been talking about.
Emily, who hadn't said anything in several minutes, suddenly leaned forward. "What did you punch him out for?"
"It's kind of a long story," I said. "Do you really need to know?"
"I'm just curious," she said. "It's just sounds like a real interesting story, like how you could end up punching a guy out, but then later invite him to move in with you."
"Look, I didn't invite the guy in because I like him. The guy was on the street. I'm just helping him out."
"Ah, now it's a human interest story."
"Oh, give it a rest," I said. "Be a person. You're not writing a story."
"Can he play drums at all?" Ryan asked, reminding me what the hell we were doing there.
"Yeah, well enough," I said. "He's not as good as Jed, but he can keep a beat. And Jed's having a great time. All he has to do is play keyboards, so it's perfect for him. He's helping Conrad with the drumming a bit, showing him beats that he wants him to play. Jed is really active in the musical direction. Much more so than before."
Ryan appeared thoughtful. "Yeah? What does that sound like?"
"A bit heavier beat, another layer of sound in the back. Although it's hard to judge what it would sound like with a guitar mixed in."
"Are you just playing Riot Band's songs?"
"No," I said, and I took a swig of beer. "We've only had one jam where we actually brought songs that we wanted to play. I brought a few of mine from Riot Band, Jed brought a few things that he'd written, and Conrad was happy to do whatever. We played a few covers. It was fun."
"Are you going to perform?"
I shrugged. "If we get a set list together, I don't see why not. We might need to add some pieces though. Definitely a guitarist. Maybe a singer. A guitarist who could sing and was into the same kind of music that we are would be perfect."
"Right," he said. "You mean me."
"If you're available, you'd be ideal," I said. "But if you're not, we'll keep looking."
"This is so irritating," he said. "You're like, totally pitching this to me, when I said only a few weeks ago that I didn't want to be in a band with you anymore because you were such a jerk."
"You said you didn't want to be in that band anymore, but you never said you'd never be in a band with me again. This isn't Riot Band. This is different, and I have a different role. I don't have the pressure. We're just doing it for fun."
"That's stupid," Ryan snapped. "You didn't have any more pressure in Riot Band than the rest of us did. Shit, it's not like you did all the work."
"Fair enough," I said, "but that's how it felt to me sometimes. It felt like I had to be the guy holding it together, and I think that's why I was acting like such a dick."
"This is amazing," Emily said. "You guys are sharing your feelings."
"I'm bored out of my mind here," Lise said, getting up. "I'm going for a smoke." She walked toward the exit.
"It's beautiful. You guys have come full circle," Emily said.
"It's only been a few weeks," Ryan retorted. "You can't come full circle in a few weeks. It takes much longer."
"Anyway, I don't want to turn this into a big thing," I said. "We should change the subject. But it would be cool if you came around to watch us jam some time. No pressure. You wouldn't even have to bring your guitar. Just, you know, check us out."
"We'll see. Let's just...yeah, let's change the subject."
Lise came back in, and we managed to stumble our way through the rest of the night. I came to a weird little realization that if Ryan and I didn't have music or a band, we didn't have a hell of a lot in common. It was worse even, because he was enrolled in a full class load, and I'd just left the university. We had even less to talk about.
Emily drove Lise and me back to Lise's place. The house was dark, and we could hear snoring coming out of Smoky's bedroom. We slipped quietly through the house and down to the basement.
Lise flicked the light on and threw he jacket on the couch. She marched into her bedroom, and without even giving me a moment to follow, came back out with a ziplock bag and her rolling papers. She sat down on the couch and began rolling a joint.
"That was brutal, Eric. Jeez, what a boring couple of people. I mean, Ryan's okay, but that girl...she's the biggest snob I've ever met."
"Yeah, she's pretty lame," I said. "So, I'm curious, what did you mean when you said that thing about me asking Conrad to move in instead of you?"
She licked the edges of the rolling paper. "It's true, isn't it? I'm not all bummed out or anything. Okay, I'm a bit bummed out. And I know we haven't been going out for a million years or anything, and I wasn't expecting you to ask me anytime soon if I wanted to move in, but yeah, it crossed my mind when you told me that Conrad was moving in. Not that I object to you taking him in or anything, I mean, I know you're helping a guy in need. It just makes me wonder if we're going to get more serious."
I stood with my arms at my sides. "How much more serious do you want to get?"
She held the completed joint between her finger and thumb. "I don't know, Eric. Are we just dating and sleeping together, or is this something more?"
I knelt down in front of her, took the joint from her fingertips and placed it between her lips. I picked up the lighter off the end table, and lit the joint for her. "Whatever you have in mind," I told her, "I'm in."
2010, Nolan Whyte