People laughed a little nervously, remembering and wondering if they should confess an early crush on George Michael or Debbie Gibson. I bided my time.
"Dude," said a woman I vaguely knew from one of my psych classes. "My first concert? I was like 8 years old and my mom took me to see Journey." We all groaned at her misfortune. This was before Journey was cool again.
"Ouch," said Jenny, who worked in the campus center. "I actually saw New Kids on the Block. I begged my mom for those tickets. I thought I was going to collapse and die when they came onto the stage."
"Boyz II Men. Seriously. I was a junior in high school," someone else chimes in.
"Christ," said Josh, pushing his awkwardly too-long hair out of his eyes. "I don't even remember. My parents took me to all these folk festival shows when I was too young to remember. I guess my first real concert, one I actually wanted to go to was REM. I saw them in Athens, when I was in high school." There was always somebody substantially cooler than the rest of the group, and if I wasn't careful, I'd lose my chance to tell my story, and one thing I'd figured out was that the concerts weren't important because of the music or the alternative-rocker credentials they bestowed. Concerts were all about the stories.
"My first concert?" I'd say, and I'd stretch now and remind people that I was a serious grunge lesbian -- flannel shirt unbuttoned over a men's Hane's undershirt, baggy Levi's I'd found at the Goodwill, barely held up by my narrow hips. I ran my fingers through my fine, straight shoulder-length hair and tucked the stray strands behind my ears. And I grinned slowly. "My first concert? Amy Grant, in 9th grade. With a bunch of these bitchy chorus girls from the crazy Christian school where I went then. Some of their parents were pissed because she'd recently gone all 'mainstream' or whatever. Not just singing about how much she loves Jesus or some shit."
"How the fuck did you end up there?" asked my flamboyantly gay friend Chris.
"You know," I said. "The principal of the school asked me if I wanted to go, said she bought me a ticket. My grandmother brought me a change of clothes, since I dressed like this--" I vaguely waved my hand at myself -- "and off I went to the big city of Raleigh. Girls cried, man. It was quite a scene."
It was, of course, more complicated than all of that, but by this point "Closer to Fine" was playing on the CD player, and we all sang loudly and off-key. We screamed in unison, "I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, Got my paper and I was free!"
After my high school concert experience, it was a long time before I went to another concert. Sure, I saw live music from time to time. I was the designated driver for practically my entire dorm my freshman year in college, and we'd check out whatever band was playing at the Mad Monk, one of the few under-21 places in Wilmington that had live music, mostly local bands, and occasionally regional bands (like Hootie and the Blowfish, actually). But when I was a junior, in 1994, I drove halfway across the state to see the Indigo Girls.
While I'd certainly heard of the Indigo Girls (and knew the song "Closer to Fine"), I didn't really know much about them, until I lived in an on-campus apartment with Kristy and Jill. Kristy was this beautiful Italian woman with olive skin and thick dark hair that she let me brush for her when she was feeling stressed. It was, for me, an erotic experience, and I think she knew that. But, of course, she had a long-distance boyfriend and a judgmental Catholic God, so I kept my hands above her neck. Kristy, though, loved the Indigo Girls, and she loaned me Rites of Passage, which I played over and over and over until I bought my own copy. I still know every word to every song on that album.
My friend Rob ran into me on campus one day and told me that the Indigo Girls were going to be in Winston Salem, and that I should get tickets. I, of course, did not have a car, but I started asking around. Road trip! I told my friends. Come on, let's do it! Finally, I convinced Amanda, her very young and nervous friend Angie, and Kristy that we should drive the 4 hours to Winston Salem in time for the concert and then the 4 hours back. Amanda was a few years older than the rest of us, and she had a car. We could take turns driving. It would be fucking awesome!
I told Rob the plan, and we said we'd try to meet up at the concert, but if not, then hey! We're going to have a blast! We left in the afternoon, tickets in hand (remember when you had to phone TicketMaster? Or go to one of their outlets?). Kristy and I had spent some time converting all of her Indigo Girls CDs to tape so we could listen to them in the car on the way. I dressed carefully, in (can you guess?) flannel, undershirt, baggy jeans, Timberland boots, and hoped I didn't look too straight with my shoulder-length hair and my disappointingly feminine features. I clipped my nails short, just in case anyone had any doubts.
I remember almost nothing of the concert except for the amazing feeling of being in a space with hundreds of other people -- mostly women, many of them obviously gay -- and the energy in the room. I felt connected to all of them, and I -- with everyone else there -- sang all the words to all the songs I knew, mostly the ones off of Rites of Passage and Swamp Ophelia. I cried during "Ghost," which made me think of my own unrequited love, and I screamed during "Closer to Fine."
And then the concert was over and we spilled out of the auditorium, I clutching a salmon-colored Swamp Ophelia t-shirt (I wonder what happened to that shirt? It probably dissolved into a million pieces sometime in the late 90s). We went to the first 24-hour Waffle House we could find for coffee and cheap, filling food. We waited for a table among men with graying beards and work pants and hard hands. I made a nervous crack about Kristy being the only straight woman in our group, and was immediately chastised by Amanda, who told me that I was going to get us all raped and murdered. I blushed and shut up, and was annoyed at having to pretend to be straight yet again.
Finally, back in the car, and back to I-40 for the trip home. By our calculations, we would be home by about 4 in the morning, a little earlier if we drove fast. Amanda drove the first part, then I took a shift, then Angie, who drove like a terrified naked mole rat. The speed limit was 65, but she barely got the car up to 55 before she started to shake. She gripped the steering wheel tightly and hunched over it slightly. I looked at Amanda, who rolled her eyes. I tried not to think about how closely I was sitting next to Kristy, who was asleep in the back seat beside me. We were in the middle of Duplin County, about 75 minutes from Wilmington, miles from the nearest anything. And the car coughed, twice.
And the car died as Angie cried out and steered it into the breakdown lane. "What's wrong with the car?" she moaned and tried to crank it.
Everyone looked at me. I sighed and looked at the dashboard. "Out of gas," I said. "You didn't notice?" I tried not to blame Angie too much, with her peaches and cream complexion and her straight red hair. I tried to stay calm and not ruin Amanda's chances with her. "You didn't notice that the gas gauge was reading almost empty? Like, oh, 50 miles back?"
"This is not my car!" she said. "I didn't know where to look! How was I supposed to know I needed to check the gas?"
Amanda sighed, and said that since it was her car, it was her fault. "Do you know where we are?" she asked me. I'd grown up in the area.
"Yeah, more or less, I think," I said. "It's a ways to the next exit, I'm sure. The next one is probably Warsaw, and that would have a gas station. It's a long walk, though."
"You stay here with Angie," she told me. "Kristy, do you mind walking with me to find some help?" Amanda's voice was calm, but I knew she was angry. Neither she nor Angie were going to get laid that early morning.
And they took off down the road. I tried to make small talk with Angie, who just kept apologizing and making excuses. Then she started asking me if Kristy and Amanda were going to be okay. There might be axe murderers. They might come for us here in the car. What were we going to do?
"Just keep the doors locked," I said. "We're going to be fine." I got out of the car and squatted behind the bumper to pee, and then had to knock on the window to get her to let me back in.
We both settled back and didn't talk after that. I drifted off to sleep. It was cold, and I wrapped my coat around me as tightly as I could and wondered if Kristy and Amanda would come back that night, or if we'd have to wait until traffic picked up in the morning.
When the knock on the window came, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Kristy was there, waving at me. We'd been rescued! As they'd walked down the road, a young man, a Marine, in a Ford Ranger stopped and picked them up. He took the the 5 miles or so to the nearest gas station, then brought them back with the full container of gasoline. He called us "ma'am," and asked if we weren't too cold, and said he was on his way back to Jacksonville, and he sure was glad he'd seen us, because who knows when someone else might come by this time a night. He poured poured the gas into Amanda's tank, and she cranked the car. He wiped his hands on the front of his tight jeans that always make me think of rodeo riders. He followed us to the gas station, waited until we were filling up, and drove off with a wave.
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