I hurt myself for music. What?! What I mean is that I get so excited about some small fact or tidbit that I sometimes injure myself in the quest to quench my musical knowledge. My right knee will never be the same, and I still haven’t seen the band. I thought I’d share a bit from my musical memoir, relevant, of course, to the band. I’m an aspiring music writer and thought this piece of permanent arthritic knee injury over the naming of the fishbowl album would interest and/or amuse some of you, and might hopefully reach the band. By the way, the aptly named album was This Desert Life, which my life became for about eight weeks thereafter.
Thanks for reading, in advance.
Chapter Thirty-Four: This Desert Life
“Turn this car around—I’m goin’ back.”
Tom Petty’s Highway Companion debuted in July 2006, but I wouldn’t appreciate it until much later. But the song I thought I’d be singing that summer was “I’m Gone” from Pearl Jam’s recently self-titled album with the avocado art. This was a track I belted as I sailed down the 460 Highway, imagining that life would be better somewhere else. Hindsight is a bitch. In truth, by January 2006, I’d decided it was time to “go home” and get on my feet. There was no promise of a job, no idea of any kind of semi-permanent residence there. Mom and Jeremy lived in a tiny, two-bedroom space (the top of a house, in fact) with no real privacy, including no doors between rooms, with the exception of the bathroom door.
Though I consciously made the decision to move, I fought like hell to stay. Again, there were no jobs that I was qualified for, save that of caring for children and changing diapers. I couldn’t even get an office job doing mundane clerical work. Mom got a severe case of pneumonia that March. She quit smoking on Lindsey’s birthday (St. Patrick’s Day). Being a recent quitter, I was so excited to have a quitting buddy, and more excited that Mom had finally quit. But as soon as she hugged me that hot day in July, I knew she’d recessed back into the old habit. There was a less-nicotine-brand, Quest, that she somehow convinced herself wasn’t “as bad” as her old smokes.
Maybe it was her recent turn back to smoking, but as soon as she showed up with a rented van to help me move, she got violently ill. She spent the next few days on a mattress in our almost empty apartment eating Saltines and throwing them back up. A college friend, Kristy, was a God-send. She helped me do everything that week. I suck at packing. I get frustrated and throw random things together like t-shirts and lamps and pots, all in one box. Mom still laments that she couldn’t help and that I left “so much” behind. The van wasn’t big enough. My car was stocked to the hilt. I left Remy much of my stuff (on his birthday, no less) with the intention of coming back soon to get it.
I can still see Remy standing there, waving and crying and I remember thinking that this was all some horrible mistake. There was no glorious belting of Pearl Jam’s “I’m Gone.” There was only the sound of tears as I reached into the glove box to find a napkin so I could see the road again. (Glove box napkins, again!)
Jeremy moved into the living room of our tiny house. Maybe I kicked him out? I don’t remember. Nevertheless, we didn’t start on the friendliest of terms. He always watched TV and it was deafening. If it wasn’t TV, it was some all-consuming video game marathon. There was no solace. He’d yell at me to turn my sweet escape of music down so he could blare the television. We were constantly at each other’s throats.
I didn’t even have a bed. Mom took my bed when she moved to Pennsylvania so I had to sleep in hers for a week. Without a job, somehow I purchased my own bed, thinking I’d be employed in the next week. Ha. Ha. Mom knew this whole move wasn’t going to be easy for me. After the second day there, Mom presented me with a generous and exciting gift: two very good seats to see the Counting Crows and the Goo Goo Dolls in concert. THE COUNTING CROWS?! She knew they were on my “must see before I die” list. They were the band I fell in love with the year Snakes was born. I fell into her arms and cried.
One of my comforts in my new situation was that Snakes and I were finally reunited. It was as though no time had ever passed. Her devotion to me never wavered. She laid on the heart rug in the kitchen when I ate, she slept right next to my head every night and greeted me at the door each day. She was on my bed the night I called Lindsey to tell her about the concert tickets.
“Yeah! And what’s that song…that really great song…Colorblind. It’s…it’s on the fish bowl album. Oh, what the hell is the name of that album?!” I exclaimed. “I always call it the fish bowl album but can never remember the title. Hang on, lemme check…OHMYGOD—OW! Ow…ow…ooo…eee….” I dropped the phone and Mom came running. There was a hot and blinding pain searing my right knee. Somehow, I tripped backwards over a pile of clean laundry and fell to my back on the floor.
“Rachael. Rachael? Are you okay?” Lindsey’s distant voice crept from the receiver of our house phone.
Mom grabbed the phone as I rocked with my injured knee. “Lindsey, we’ll call you back. I think she’ll be all right.”
“Can you move it?” Mom asked.
Tears streamed down my face. “No, it hurts too badly.”
We put ice on it. I had no doctor and no insurance. In retrospect, we should have gone to the ER immediately. This physical setback did not prohibit me from going to the concert anyway. There were 17 stairs from Mom’s kitchen door to the porch, and then another five to the sidewalk. The outdoor arena, Montage Mountain, was exactly that: a steady, uphill climb to the outdoor arena. As we neared the venue, signs burned my eyes: “The Counting Crows will not be performing due to illness.”
Tears threatened my eyes. “Illness?! I broke my goddamned knee and hobbled up here to see them and they’re cancelling due to illness!?” We stayed for the Goo Goo Dolls anyway. While I am a fan of their music, the concert was anti-climactic. They are, unfortunately, a band that is verbatim to their albums. No surprises, no great energy. The seats were so incredible, the best I’ve ever had. And the whole time I kept trying to imagine Adam Duritz (the lead singer) crooning there in my sight, close enough that I could see his facial expressions.
The Counting Crows, much like Pearl Jam, have been a constant in my life. Though I was a poet by age eight, the poetry of their lyrics and the somber tone of some of their music, has always spoken to me. Their first album, August and Everything After, is arguably their best. You could argue otherwise, but it would be difficult to persuade me. That was the album I danced to, sang to, lived to. It was an album that always made me think of Snakes, too. The final track is called “A Murder of One” and, when I was only 12, I made an interpretive dance to go along with it, much like my Madonna days.
It wasn’t until recently that I saw a documentary on PBS about crows that the meaning behind the title made sense to me. A group of crows is called “a murder of crows.” For some reason, my adolescent mind had always associated murder with the violent taking of one’s life. Though I knew the origin of the term “murder of crows” this refreshed look at the title was more meaningful. I’m not well-educated on the band but I do know that Adam Duritz suffers from some horrible mental instability like bipolar disorder or manic depression or something. Being a survivor of clinical depression, I understood what that darkness could be like.
A time after the concert, when reflecting on the disappointment of not seeing them, I softened. I was well aware that illness doesn’t always mean a cold or flu. Flashes of my college “dark” days illuminated my mind. I was able to forgive them, but I vowed then and there that I would see them before I left Pennsylvania. Maybe one day I could tell them the story of how I trekked up a mountain with an injured knee in my excitement for them.
A recurring theme in the band’s lyrics is rain. “Raining in Baltimore” and “Rain King” are two of the most well-known, but there is a mention of rain on almost every album. Now, when it rains, my right knee aches. But I can walk and drive and dance, still. Sometimes, I think on that. I’ve used music to make sense of my life. It is fitting that even my injuries are music-related.
I spent six weeks in bed reading, on the internet looking for jobs. The day after the concert, Mom took me to the hospital and I was able to get medical assistance to cover the cost. Bed rest, aspirin and elevation. The local library was my saving grace, again. I think I read all of the Chronicles of Narnia and some of the classics like The Catcher in the Rye and The Color Purple.
I was lucky enough to get a nice office job interview, complete with knee brace and everything. Because it was my driving foot, Grandpa had to take me. I think I failed the typing test. Now don’t get me wrong, I can type—I can type over 60 words per minute when I’m not directly transposing something. When I’m directly transposing something I use meticulous care in making sure there are no errors. The typing test for that interview was timed. When I felt miserable about not getting the job, I often tried to think that, because they were an insurance company, they didn’t hire me because they thought I was accident prone. The knee brace, I’m sure, didn’t help matters.
It came down to retail, which drove me darker into a depression again. Imagine the t-shirt: I survived college and all I got was this lousy t-shirt? (on the back: and a mountain of student loan debt with which my minimum wage retail job will never be able to satisfy. Joy.) In about six weeks, my knee recovered, but it has never been the same. Part of that is because I didn’t seek medical attention immediately. The other part is probably that I was stubborn and spent too much time being mobile: 17 apartment stairs, a concert at the top of a mountain…
While I was having my physical setback, it became evident that something wasn’t quite right with my darling Snakes, who, at this time was 12. She was too thin and peed too much; we suspected diabetes. In my mind, I suspected worse. When I had the promise of working at Target, slinging boxes in a backroom for minimum wage, I took her to the vet. The appointment was on my birthday and I remember crying and praying, “Please don’t let my cat die on my birthday.”
Jeremy and I were having a difficult time getting along, but Snakes’ diabetes united us. She needed two injections of insulin per day, every 12 hours. This changed my life. It made me grateful for the job I had, even though I still didn’t like it. It made me respect Jeremy more—here was a “man-boy” recovering addict who had no problem inoculating a cat. My greatest fear was that he would suffer flashbacks to his heroin life each time he gave her the dose. Mom was out of the question. She always claimed to “pass out changing pierced earrings” so there was no way we’d teach her how to do this!
After a while, it became routine, but from that day in December, Snakes became my primary focus. Sure, I could go out (which I did rarely because I had only one friend) but I had to arrange her dosages with Jeremy. It wasn’t that he would screw it up, but Mom and I both worried that he would forget because his memory was compromised—A LOT—from his former drug use and current medication. He never let me down. If there was one thing that always bonded us, it was our cats. Cats were more than family to us—they were divine.
“She’s my cat, too, Rachael. Of course I’m going to take care of her.”
While Snakes united us, we still had violent scuffles. One occasion, I escaped and sat in a local grocery store parking lot, crying. I called my friend, Cathy, and went to her house for tea. Our fights were crazy, and mostly provoked by me. My resistance to this move, this new life, stole my joy but it made me a little crazy. I thought if I was going to have to be here, do this, live like this, the least he could do is bend to my every nit-picking request. But it wasn’t all together Jeremy’s fault. I needed solace and in our tiny, two-bedroom apartment that was impossible to find.
After a failed job interview in Blacksburg, VA in January of 2007, I decided it was time to go back to school. For a time, I used graduate school as a reason to escape. I had a notebook, by then, of newspaper articles for prospective jobs in Wilkes-Barre, some from the internet, a few from back in Virginia. Mostly, I was looking for jobs at potential graduate schools so that I could get there, work, and have them pay for my education. This was a dark time for me. Sarcasm, defeat, untreated depression, horrible loneliness, the waning of hope, the latter of which was the worst. You can feel down, but to lose hope? That’s a terrible and dark corridor to cross over.
If I wasn’t at Target, I was at the Mill Memorial Library in Nanticoke, desperately looking for jobs and graduate schools in Virginia. It never occurred to me to see if the library was hiring. I always assumed that librarians were set for life in their occupation (and I found this to be mostly true, later.) But the girl with the waist-length brown hair always helped me, and she couldn’t have been much older than me. Still, it never crossed my mind to ask. One day, sitting on my bed with Snakes, a job ad burned my retinas: PART-TIME LIBRARIAN. It wasn’t for Mill, where I’d practically been living, but it was nearby in Wilkes-Barre.
All those days of changing dirty diapers paid off. The job was in the Youth Services Department and my background in English and early childhood education more than qualified me. At the interview, I saw small, penciled in number at the top left corner of the question sheet she had: 10.04. I remember thinking, “Really? If that’s the salary then I can do that. I might even be able to quit Target. Am I finally going to break the ten-dollars per hour mark? But why four cents? I hadn’t really been listening to her, except I noticed that in certain words, like “Saturday” she softened the “t” and it sounded like “Sa-urday.” I knew enough to know that this job was mine. Working with books and kids and making a decent wage, even if it was part-time? Count me in. After calling the supervisor at least three times that week, she hired me.
So it was…I worked 8-12 at the library and 2-9 at Target, most days. At the time, I’d been heavily into the fish bowl album, listening to “St. Robinson and His Cadillac Dream.” The early spring weather was sunny and I’d wind down my window and let my hand dance on the breeze as Adam Duritz and I sang, “There is a girl in a basement coming out of her shell…”
That whole album was essential to my Pennsylvania experience. Not just because I “broke my knee” over it. The song “Speedway” became a lot like Pearl Jam’s “Gone.” It was a song that set the tone of my life in this new state. “I’m thinkin’ about breaking myself. I’m thinkin’ about leaving soon. I’m thinkin’ about getting back home. I think I been waitin’ way too long / thinkin’ ‘bout getting out.” Pennsylvania was a manic experience. Half the time I was trying to live elsewhere while the other half living there. My mind was always set on escape and I often resisted friendships, thoughts of “settling down” or meeting someone conflicted with my determination to leave. “What’s the point? I’ll just leave anyway” had been my attitude.
In ways, This Desert Life was the theme of my Pennsylvania experience. It was more solitary than it needed to be, especially in the time of my knee recovery, but also because my eyes were like the headlights of St. Robinson’s Cadillac, always too focused on what was ahead.