Down by the River
I was down by the river where I always went when I was heartbroken. I know it’s pretty cliché and all, especially with that Bruce Springsteen song, but I had nowhere to go but the river. If you had grown up in Shelbina, Missouri, maybe you’d understand. And I needed some place to go when I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken often.
In this case the girl’s name was Naomi. Pretty cool name for a girl from Shelbina.
We had gone out together for about two months. I was really into her. She was only 17, but she seemed kinda wise to me. Well, wise? I don’t really know what wise is, but she seemed older to me than 17, that’s what I’m sayin’. And I liked that. I mean I’m only 18 myself, but I like to think of myself as older too. As a person, you know. Like more mature and all. Not like all the jock friends I grew up with who were still only into football and drinking beer and driving their dad’s pick-ups up and down the three streets of our town and yelling stupid shit at cyclists they pass. I wanted to be more like an intellectual or an artist or something. But I didn’t really know how to go about that. It’s not exactly something you learn in Shelbina.
My parents sure weren’t a great help either. Like my dad sure would have preferred me to be one of the guys getting drunk and yelling stupid shit at cyclists rather than trying to be an intellectual or an artist. To him I was weird and a sissy, I guess. At least that’s what he liked to call me. “I can’t believe my son is such a sissy!” That was his favorite line. And it had been since I was 14. Maybe even before that. I think it started with me not wanting to be on the football team anymore. I can’t remember exactly. It didn’t seem to matter so much to him that I wasn’t any good anyway, you still had to “try and fight”, or whatever it was that he used to say. He didn’t say that anymore. He had probably given up on me by now. So he contented himself with reminding me ever so often that I was a sissy, mostly to pity himself, I suppose.
My mom tried to be nice to me, but mainly she was just concerned with not aggravating my dad ‘cause when he got aggravated he was really mean to her, meaner even than usually. Or at least that’s how I saw it. So in the end mom was no help. I kinda felt sorry for her ‘cause I saw that she meant well, but then again she never really did anything for me, so why was I gonna invest much in that relationship either?
My parents just were, like, there. That’s pretty much how I felt. I’ve read stuff where people say that this can’t be, and that how you feel about your parents will always have a great impact on your life, and better you deal with it than pretend that it doesn’t bother you. But probably these people never had parents from Shelbina, so why would I listen to their advice?
Anyway. Naomi. She had only moved back to Shelbina two months before I met her. She was born there, but then grew up in Springfield, Illinois, where her dad had been a primary school principle. He was retired now and had come back to live in rural Missouri. (Don’t ask me why. I know the Mark Twain books are neat and all, but that was a long time ago.)
I first spoke to Naomi on a bus from Monroe City one late afternoon. She said that she was just coming back from Chicago where she had seen a Cat Power show the night before, and I was mighty impressed ‘cause I didn’t know of anyone else in Shelbina who even knew who Cat Power was, and I wished I could have been at the show too, but I had been working at this alternative bookstore that was trying to make it in Monroe City, even though it would probably have to close down soon, especially since they had announced to build a Barnes & Noble’s over in Hannibal. I told Naomi about the planned Barnes & Noble’s, and she just shook her head and said, ya, corporate capitalism sucks, and I was in love. We talked about many other things on the bus that day which I don’t really remember ‘cause I was too smitten, and when we got off the bus she gave me her number and said we should go for a drink sometime.
I called her the next day, but she said she was pretty busy, and in fact she kinda continued to blow me off. But I was really persistent, and eventually we did go out, to this place called the Roundabout, down by where you leave town towards the river. (And if you think that was a pretty bad name for a bar you should see the names of the other three bars in Shelbina. In fact, the Roundabout was the only bar in town you could take a girl like Naomi to.)
I guess I must have done pretty well that night ‘cause towards the end I did notice Naomi actually paying attention to what I said rather than just telling me how the world was and how it ought to be, like she was the only person on the globe who had ever thought about such things. Having said that, to me she was that person at the time: no matter how many people had already said that we live in a world of madness, need to reconnect with mother earth, or have to replace greed with love, Naomi definitely said it better and gentler and altogether more beautifully than any of them. When we parted at the corner of 2nd and Riverway around one that night, she said she had had a really nice evening and that we should get together again sometime. I said, yes, that’d be great, or something to that extent. I didn’t get a kiss though.
So, I did see her a couple more times over at the Roundabout, and we had nice conversations, but nothing ever really happened then either. Actually, I started to get kinda frustrated. I needed to make that infamous move. I just didn’t really know how to go about that in respect to a girl like Naomi.
Then, however, I nailed it. Working over at Brouse, the struggling bookstore (the owner still thought that this was the wittiest abbreviation for “a house where you can browse at leisure” while I was always convinced that no one ever got it, and that, if anything, it just kept customers away ‘cause they didn’t wanna buy books in a place run by apparent dyslexics), one late afternoon I looked through the event listings for eastern Missouri and came across a brand new announcement for a surprise Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album release party in St. Louis on the 20th. It was the first time Will Oldham would play in St. Louis in five years, and only limited tickets were on sale, and they were expensive, but this was my chance, and there was no stopping me. I called the Ticketmaster number (and screwed the evils of corporate capitalism for a second – but I was on a quest here!) and got two tickets on a credit card with highly dubious credit status, but apparently it went through, and indeed, two days later I had the tickets in the mail.
I called Naomi that night and told her I wanted to see her and that I had a surprise for her.
We met at the Roundabout around eight, and everything worked out like in a fairy-tale: Naomi was really psyched: Will Oldham had been one of her favorite artists for years, she had never seen any of his shows but had always wanted to, and an album release party must be particular fun. She hugged me and gave me a big kiss, and later that night we kissed much more, and when we parted at the corner of 2nd and Riverway she said that her parents would be gone on Saturday and that I should come over.
Needless to say I was there that Saturday, and we made love four times, and hang out every day henceforth, and the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy show was great, and I knew that I had found the love of my life.
I was riding the clouds for about two months. I don’t wanna bore you with the details, but if you’ve ever been in love you know what I’m talking about. The most amazing thing was that under such circumstances even a town like Shelbina, Missouri, suddenly looked like Bora Bora. This old hippie lady who was one of the few regulars at Brouse’s had told me once that there was no other hope than love. No shit.
And then one day, when I met Naomi at the park after school like any other day, she told me that she couldn’t see me anymore because she had thought about things, and things were going too fast and we were getting too close and too attached while she was too young to enter a relationship like that ‘cause she still had to experience life and all, and I shouldn’t take it the wrong way ‘cause it had absolutely nothing to do with me ‘cause I was a great guy and she truly loved me, but she just knew that this wasn’t good for either of us, and she was sure that in fact I would agree, and you never knew what the future might bring, but for now we should just be friends.
I’m sure you must have had these experiences in life where something is happening that seems so bizarre and unreal that you can’t actually believe it’s happening; well, that’s exactly what I felt that afternoon. I did what most people in these situations do (except for the ones who have a tendency to freak, but I never had that tendency), which is: go through the motions, meaning: even though all you’d really wanna do is puke or ram your head into the next tree or smash up all the cars on the lot, you act all calm and mature. So, calmly and maturely, I told Naomi that I did in fact not believe that calling things off would be what’s best for me, and that even though I understood her concerns I was sure things could be adjusted, and that, besides, I loved her and really needed her. She put a hand on my face and gave me a kiss on the cheek and said “oh, love, you’re so sweet”, and then explained to me once again that, even if I didn’t understand now, ending things would best for me too, she knew that, and then she leaped into this whole speech about how people have to experience many different things in life, and how there were too many beautiful people to just focus on one, and how love had to be shared amongst many, and for the first time ever when she held a lecture like that I didn’t think she was the smartest and most wonderful girl saying the smartest and most wonderful things, no, this time I thought she was just a self-centered, pretentious, obnoxious little twat, but of course I didn’t tell her that, and of course I did hate myself for even thinking that, and so I just nodded and said “okay” in the end and endured her “oh, love, you’re so wonderful” and another kiss on the cheek, and then she jumped up and said she would call me, and I said “okay” again and got up and rolled home on my skateboard and lay down on my bed and cried like a baby.
And now this had been three weeks ago, and of course Naomi hadn’t called. So, I’d just spent my days down by the river remembering the times I had been down there before - always after things had gone wrong with girls. Not that I had necessarily always been dumped as brutally as I had been by Naomi, but something had always gone wrong, like with Lisa when I realized that we just weren’t into each other that much anymore, or with Monica who I felt just didn’t live up to my expectations, or with Caroline who went back to her old boyfriend, or with the other Lisa who simply moved to the West Coast. Whatever the reason, I was always sad and had to come down to the river where feeling sad at least felt kinda romantic - in a cheesy, yet comforting way. You know, i hate to say it, but exactly like in that Bruce Springsteen song.
I think what mainly got me were the promises that love made but never kept. You know, like you live in a world that’s full of pain and suffering and injustice and people hating each other and fucking each other over and destroying the planet. I mean, yes, there are good things too, we all know that, but sometimes they seem rather pale in comparison to all the bad things; especially if you’re a stubborn dreamer who thinks that things should be as beautiful as they potentially could be. And then love comes along and it’s so innocent and so pure and so magnificent, and you think that, even on a very small scale, you have found the immaculate beauty that life as a whole should be all about - and then it wanes, for trivial or not so trivial reasons, which didn’t actually matter, and you are left alone again with the world of pain and suffering and injustice, only that now it seems even worse after you had just experienced something else. And so love just seemed to be this evil teaser that prohibited you from accepting the world as it was ‘cause it suggested the world could be so much better, as good as you imagined it in your dreams even, but then it never got you to this world it had promised, and so I got mad at love and felt screwed over and played with and betrayed by.
I had gone through my worst periods of grief and anger and frustration when, one morning, I watched the water run over the pebbles on the side of the river where these little currents cut into the forest and formed little creeks. I realized that as much of a teaser as it was, at the end of the day that old lady from the Brouse was right: there was just no hope other than love. And I decided that I wouldn’t let go, no matter how often it would let me down, ‘cause if you stopped believing in love, what would be left there to believe in at all?
Naomi? Whatever. She was just a girl. Love was something bigger. Nothing some Naomi could destroy. I now laughed at the thought of giving her babbling self-obsession so much credit.
I got up and threw a couple of stones in the water. I was ready to leave. And I would find love again. A perennial quest? So be it. What else was there to do?