Friday, March 25, 2011

White Dope on Punk: Chapter 4. Deal Breaker

By Greg Kim

I met Janet at a Halloween party. She was dressed as a witch and I was dressed as Johnny Bravo, Greg Brady’s alter ego on the Brady Bunch. With a shaggy wig, a jean leisure suit and white patent leather shoes, I felt the part and played the obnoxious role of cool guy. I was young, give me a break.

When I took off my wig, revealing pink hair and some poorly pierced ears, and she took off her pointy hat and make-up, revealing a pale face and a new wave haircut, we still decided to give it a try. New wave girls were curious about punk guys, using them as leverage against strict parents, and punk guys were notorious for not dating their own kind, preferring cute new wave girls. So, on paper, this was a potential match. I would never take her to a punk show, and she would never take me to a party; our friends would never meet, but this was ok. It was a selfish relationship at its finest.

One weekend she invited me to the blessing of her senior class by a priest at St. Augustine’s, a local Catholic church. She knew me well enough to know that this was something I wouldn’t want to attend. All her friends would be there and inevitably someone would put it together that the weird-looking guy in the back was there for Janet. I sure as hell didn’t want our “coming out” party to be at church.

I protested, saying I had previous plans, and considered breaking up with her, but she was persistent, claiming she never asked me to do anything, which was true. Then she revealed the real reason: she was playing a song on guitar at the ceremony. She had me. Breaking up with her to get out of going would be cruel and, as non-committal and casual as we were, she wanted to share her guitar playing with me. And I was a little intrigued.

I asked her what song she was playing and she said it was a song about “passing time.” What the fuck does that mean? To postpone the inevitable teasing, she wisely withheld the name of the song. She knew me well.

I arrived late, waiting in my car until the throngs of people milling about went inside. I sat near the back and put my feet on the footrest, which was supposed to be for kneeling when you pray. An old Catholic admonished me for this. Janet sat in the front with her friends and the rest of the class.

The service began and I slumped down in the pew, looking around for a clock. Not even a minute into the service and I was already bored and full of regret for agreeing to attend. It reminded me of my family’s ill-fated attempt at religion.

We were Presbyterian for a short time when I was in 5th grade. It lasted a couple months, long enough for my sister to wear a white dress with other girls her age and stand in front of the church for communion (or whatever the Presbyterian equivalent of communion is). Whereas Lisa was a willing participant in this religious thing, I was prone to disappearing 15 minutes before it was time to go to church. I would hide in the woods, peering out through thick foliage, watching my dad traipse through our neighbors’ yards, in his slacks and patterned shirts, yelling my name in a loud whisper. Gregory? Goddammit, Gregory. This became a regular occurrence on Sundays. Depending on how pissed he was, I would either come out and go to church or stay hidden in the woods.

Our last Sunday as Presbyterians started out normally: I hid in the woods, my dad got pissed, I came out and we went to church. Because I was utterly bored in church, borrowing my dad’s watch to see how long I could hold my breath, my parents put me in Sunday school.

I don’t remember much about Sunday school except how it ended. The Sunday school teacher, an unassuming man in his early 30s, assigned us characters from a biblical play, which we were to read aloud. This was supposed to be a reward for being good students. My part was small, only one word: “Yes.”
As we practiced the play, I meticulously followed the dialogue. I didn’t want to screw up. When it came time to say “yes,” I blew my line. I was embarrassed and everybody laughed because they knew I only had to remember one word. I projected my embarrassment, calling the teacher Mr. Fag. Because of this, my parents had to have a sit-down with the teacher and somebody from the church. This was all too much for my parents. They gave up and we stopped going to church.

Thirty years later I found myself back at church, searching for a clock and waiting for my not-so girlfriend to sing a song about time passing.
The priest led the congregation through the service. We sang songs (most everybody knew the lyrics) and replied with “Amen” when the priest said something good. When it came time for communion, I got nervous. People either kneeled on the footrest or approached the front. I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a nice woman at the end of the pew noticed my anxiety and said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to take communion if you don’t want to.” I was relieved and thankful for her kindness. Her Presbyterian-dar must have been on high alert.

The priest blessed the class and announced that a student would sing a song. There was an awkward silence while Janet set up, the microphone crackling over the cheap P.A., as she pulled it closer to her guitar. Her singing partner sat quietly next to her. After a brief pause, she started the song. I never had seen her play guitar so I was immediately impressed by her finger picking. I recognized the song, but I couldn’t place it:

Life, so they say
Is but a game and they'd let it slip away
Love, like the autumn sun
Should be dyin' but it's only just begun

It wasn’t until she sang the chorus that the song came back to me. It was “We May Never Pass This Way Again,” by Loggins and Messina, a song I had heard countless times on AM radio.

I watched in disbelief as people cried and related to the song, feeling that this special moment in their lives was coming to an end and that hope and optimism awaited them. I silently mocked them.

Janet closed her eyes as she played and leaned back when reaching for high notes. She earnestly sang each line, grimacing like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn—white bluesmen—when emphasizing certain words. It didn’t sit well with me. I looked around for support, craning my neck to see other denizens, but all I saw were rapt individuals. It wasn’t a good sight and I knew the visual wouldn’t leave me.

Janet received a raucous applause, a few people standing. She was last on the agenda. People filed out after the song, commenting on Janet’s voice and how appropriate the song was for the occasion.

I waited at the far end of the parking lot, reading a paperback that I kept in my back pocket for these occasions. Parents and students talked out front. This was her territory and I knew my boundaries.

Janet eventually came over and we greeted each other awkwardly. I told her that I was impressed with her guitar playing and sarcastically said that the song was one of my favorites. She smirked and said she was going to a graduation party and asked if I wanted to come. This was odd—she was breaking the rules. I declined and asked her to call when it was over. We were a very Valley Girl couple and I just couldn’t deal with making small talk with Janet’s preppy girlfriends and jocky guy friends. I was sure a drunk friend would either threaten me (“If you hurt Janet, I will kill you") or ask me what I was doing with Janet, like I was working some angle.

Our relationship had grown complicated. She wanted me to take her to punk shows, invited me to high school parties and suggested double dating. This was breaking the rules. I liked Janet and was amenable to most of these things, but I just couldn’t get over the visual of her leaning back while singing the Loggins and Messina song. It was a deal breaker.

I promptly broke up with Janet after the “blessing,” citing Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton as the reason.

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