“WHAT KIND OF MUSIC IS THIS AGAIN?” I yelled over the reverb, over the irregular stops-and-starts, over the guitars amped way higher than the vocals and the enormous crowd of people banging heads so hard I thought their necks might crack. I’d just arrived at the Double Door with my friend Laurie, who was less of a Friend-Friend and more of a Girl I Got Drunk With, although back then I didn’t know the difference. We were there to hear the band, the singer of which she was sleeping with; the drummer of which she thought I could sleep with. I liked drummers. I liked sleeping with people. It was a win-win scenario.
“MATH ROCK,” she yelled back. “IT’S LIKE, PROGRESSIVE.”
This was before the Smoke Free Illinois Act, so standing in that bar was an immediate contact high. I could feel nicotine in my brain. I could feel it in my pores. It was under my fingernails, black polish chewed to the cuticles. I wore fishnets then and too much eyeliner; it made my eyes water and bugged the hell out of me, but I thought I looked cool. Like I fit or something. I was twenty-four, working my way through grad school by waiting tables at a brunch restaurant a block down from the Double Door. Everyone in the neighborhood ate brunch there. I knew all the bartenders, all the bouncers; I got in and drank for free.
There was a lot of getting in.
There was a lot of drinking.
I moved closer to the stage, in part to get a look at the drummer, but really I wanted to dance. The day had been long. The week had been long. The semester had been long: 7-4 shift selling pancakes and Bloody Marys, 6-10 class reading Selby and Richard Wright, trying to write, trying to sleep, rinse and repeat the next day, and the next, and sometimes it has to come out, you know? It has to erupt, to explode, stop thinking, throw your body at it, into it, and so far as I could tell, my options were these: sex, always at their place and sneaking out before sun-up to open the restaurant; kickboxing class at the dojo down the street, my knees and knuckles bruised from the bag; or live music, up front near the speakers where it’s so fucking loud you can’t hear yourself think and you’re finally, mercifully, free.
I remember math rock being hard to dance to. It wasn’t even dancing, more like body slamming, shoulders and elbows and skulls—not my thing. NO MOSH PITS. I didn’t know much about myself back then, but I knew that. PAY YOUR OWN WAY. That was another thing I knew, and MAKE THE WORLD BETTER, which might sound corny, but I believed it then and I believe it now. The only other things I knew for sure were that I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a mom. Both of these would happen in the fuzzy, undefined future of “later,” when I had somehow “become an adult” and found the mysterious answers to questions I couldn’t yet articulate.
All that was years away, and this was the now, for trying and failing and drinking and that drummer with his tattoos sleeved to his wrists, sweaty and dripping and delicious, but more than that, I wanted to dance, so I yelled to Laurie that I’d be right back and pushed my way through the crowd, out the back door, and onto Damen Avenue. It felt like I’d walked out of a sauna. The cold was perfect. The air was clean, sharp, smoke-free. Everything was Technicolor: restaurants and rock clubs and bars all wide awake and electric. I zigzagged through traffic to the other side of the street, ran past the brand-new Starbucks—its windows duct-taped because people kept throwing bricks through them in corporate protest—and around the corner to the Subterranean. There was a line to get in but I ducked past it, waved hi to Rich checking IDs at the door, and pushed my way through to the downstairs bar. Again, the smoke was thick; again, the volume cranked. I think it might have been Retro Night, or maybe the DJ had grown up like me, the late Eighties/early Nineties, underage kids at basement raves drinking Everclear and Kool-Aid. An up-tempo Bonnie Tyler remix was playing and I automatically relaxed. My shoulders unlocked. My fingers tingled. Music is muscle memory; I felt that song through my whole body.
I went to the bar where my roommate Dia was working and waited to catch her eye. It was slammed in there; the wait for booze was four people deep, all waving hands and bills to get her attention. “Was it that bad?” she said when she saw me, leaning over the bar so we wouldn’t have to yell.
I knew she was referring to the Double Door: drummer, music, math. “It wasn’t bad,” I told her. “Just… I didn’t really fit.”
“Are you going back?” she asked, grabbing some bottles to make me a drink. I don’t remember what. I drank fruity, stupid shit back then.
She leaned towards me again, reaching out her thumbs to smooth my melting eyeliner. She was my Friend-Friend, I know it now and I knew it then. “There are plenty of people here to sleep with,” she said, smiling, glancing to my left, to my right, to the bodies all around us. So much possibility. Who knew what might happen?—who I’d meet, who I’d find, who I’d become. She handed me some god-awful sugary drink, one of many that night that I’d drink too fast, like they were juice, and regret the next morning, hungover to all hell and serving omelettes at 8 a.m., but that was tomorrow and this was the now. Bonnie Tyler finished, and the next song snuck up through the speakers, slow and quiet at first, only her voice: “How do you say de-groovy? How do you say de-gorgeous? Oh la la, la lalalala la!”
We screamed the that’s my song! scream—Dia and I, and everyone in the bar,
and maybe everyone in the neighborhood, too. Maybe everyone in the city.
I stashed my bag behind Dia’s bar and slid into the bodies on the dance floor, all hip and swerve, bass line and slide whistles and castanets, weaving around and through and into all of them, all of us. I was up front near the speakers where it was so fucking loud I couldn’t hear myself think.
There was so much possibility.
It was so easy. So perfectly, mercifully free.
* * * *
“TREES, FROGS, AND WHAT ARE AWESOME?” I yelled over the electronica, over the unavoidably catchy chorus and Andy Samberg rapping the refrain, over omg this is the 900th time we’ve listened to this song since The Lego movie came out last winter and my six-year-old son throwing his body so hard around the kitchen I thought he might break the glassware. It was our Sunday Morning Dance Party, also known as My Turn To Get Up With The Kid So My Husband Can Sleep In. Because I Am Nice. But Also Because He Got Up Yesterday.
“CLOGS!” my son yelled, waving his arms in the air. “THEY’RE AWESOME!”
The kitchen was full of sunshine; cautiously, tentatively, finally spring after a bitch of a Chicago winter. Multiple polar vortexes, too many hours locked up in the house, day-after-day of darkness had turned my kid into a shook-up two-liter of soda pop ready to explode. I’d started the dance parties as a way to, as they say, “get the wiggles out;” spinning in circles, shaking our asses, burning his beautifully, exhaustingly endless energy, but in the end, I think I needed them more than he did. I was thirty-eight, working full-time, trying to be a mom and a wife and a writer and “have it all” i.e. the ongoing subject of a thousand Twenty-first Century parenting thinkpieces many of which make me want to stick a fork in my eye.
It comes down to this:There is guilt.
But moreso, joy.
I grabbed his little hands and he did a sort of jump-flip, running up my body and going legs-over-head. Soon, I won’t be able to support his weight. He’s almost too big now; I grit my teeth and dig my heels into the floor. When did this happen? These years have shot by: at home with him the first six months, working part-time jobs the next few years, back full-time a year ago, and here I am; trying to write, trying to sleep, rinse and repeat, and the only way to make it through without losing your mind from the all the beauty and gratitude and exhaustion is to drop whatever you’re doing—drop it, now, drop it—and have a fucking dance party.
For the record: “Everything is Awesome” is not an easy song to dance to. It moves super-lightning fast. It’s more like running in place; knees and elbows, back and forth—not my thing. NO AEROBICS. I don’t know much about myself these days, but I know that. PAY YOUR OWN WAY. That’s another thing I know, and MAKE THE WORLD BETTER, which might sound corny, but I believe it. I wager I’ll believe it later, too, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the fuzzy, undefined future. We’re here, now, on the ground, in it; the writing and the loving and the trying and the living.
The only other thing I know for sure is this: EVERYTHING CHANGES.
I’m not looking for a place to fit.
I made a place.
My son and I design meticulous playlists for our dance parties, paying close attention to the following: 1) wide variety of musical genre 2) quiet enough to not wake his dad and/or our upstairs and/or downstairs neighbors and 3) loud enough that he can, as he says, “dance my face off.” He likes Graceland. He likes Led Zeppelin. He likes “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States of America, and recently told me that a video of Ella Fitzgerald scat-singing is what magic sounds like. I have to keep one eye on lyrics because at this stage in the game, he’s a parrot, and I’m not prepared to explain him telling his kindergarten class that “I/look so good/tonight/goddamn goddamn/I woke up like this.”
But most of all, I like sharing my favorites with him, the music that’s muscle memory. The playlist currently in rotation is called SPRING YAY! in honor of the sun finally streaming through our windows. The first song is “Sweet Dreams.” Then, “Bag of Hammers;” then his Aunt Dia’s favorite, “Tell Me Something Good;” then Fleet Foxes; then MIA; then “Everything is Awesome” twice, back-to-back ‘cause he loves it THAT MUCH; and then, after the technopop fades out, we hear her voice, at first slow and quiet: “How do you say de-groovy? How do you say de-gorgeous? Oh la la, la lalalala la.”
We scream the that’s my song! scream—my son and I, and maybe everyone
in the building, too. Maybe everyone in Rogers Park, and this whole damn city.
We’re going to dance
We’re going to dance
We’re going to dance
And have some fun.
This morning, I stood back and watched him dance his face off, flinging his little body around the room. Who will he become? What will he find? What will he make for himself? —it almost takes my breath away.
But all that is for later. This is the now, and I grabbed his hands and danced.
Megan Stielstra is the author of the story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and her personal essay collection, Once I Was Cool, is forthcoming in May of 2014. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, Other Voices, f Magazine, Make Magazine, Joyland, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Swink, and elsewhere. She is the Literary Director of the critically-acclaimed 2nd Story storytelling series and has told stories for all sorts of theaters, festivals, and bars including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Museum of Contemporary Art, Neo-Futurarium, Chicago Public Radio, and regularly for The Paper Machete live news magazine at The Green Mill. Currently, she teaches writing and performance at Columbia College Chicago and is the Associate Director of The Center For Innovation in Teaching Excellence. She also teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, fiction at the University of Chicago, and is a 3Arts Teaching Artist Award Finalist for her work with 2nd Story, helping people of all ages get their stories on the page.