(Fair Warning: this post is not that light-hearted)
Music, keyed in to moments, becomes the catalyst that bares open long pathways of memory. Music can recall that which is almost lost. The problem is that music can’t always be directed; it can open passages you wanted to keep closed. It can shed light on feelings and thoughts best left for the dark. Often, music you like can do this; but since memory is something we don’t control, it is as often that music you don’t like (or don’t like for cause) brings out the real pain.
Memories and music combine to tell stories. Sometimes there are stories that are yours because you were the main fucking character in something really big. For many of us, this comes during weddings, funerals or crises after which even though there were bit players who made the stories possible, we know that we were the protagonists. We were at center stage where the curtain parted and closed.
The truer thing in life is that more often we are the bit players in other people’s narratives. We experience the drama of life, we even orbit around center stage, but there are so few stories that are actually wholly the property of one person or another that any time one of us dares to tell a story we run the risk of (1) being called to task by someone who knows the real account (or at least an account untainted by the narrator’s intervention) or (2) of stealing somebody else’s story.
The most shocking and repeated stories in life, thankfully, are often those you hear second or third-hand or experience only tangentially. These are usually the tales filled with the greatest danger, the most drama and seasoned with the most salacious details. We love to tell these stories because of their shock value and the awe they inspire. We can tell these stories because the stakes of the telling are low for us: we didn’t feel the worst of the pain; the vicarious pleasure of telling a good tale comes at little or no cost.
This is a story like that. A story I am stealing from its rightful owner. A story I witnessed from the background. I was a walk-on extra; I was a chorus member in a big dance scene. And it fulfills all the obligatory salacious needs of a good yarn: there’s sex, there’s crime and there’s a soundtrack.
At my high school, as at many in rural areas, driver’s ed was offered through the school. I signed up as everyone did for the spring course the year I was old enough to start driving. The teacher two female friends of mine and I were assigned to was the school favorite: a health teacher whose last name was slang for male anatomy. Let’s just call it as it is: He was Mr. Penis. Mr. P. for short.
The girls and I were pretty close: one, Mrs. Y, was the girlfriend of the Artist (a friend of mine she eventually married); the other was an on-again, off-again girlfriend of mine who eventually came out of the closet. Let’s call her Ms. L. Both girls were good, caring people. Both of them had infinite patience for me. Both were naïve enough to idolize Mr. P.
Here’s the kind of guy Mr. P. was: when Mrs. Y had a ‘birth control failure’ he was the teacher in a school of many she was comfortable talking to. When he took us out driving for our class, he let me start on the freeway. He took us on errands—we saw his house; he took us out to breakfast. He was funny, he was charming.
But he was also a bit odd. This was the year that “Save the Best for Last” was in constant play on the radio. Ms. L used to look at me with a sickly sweet expression of affection whenever she mouthed the words to the song. Constitutionally allergic to such expressions as I was, it was hard for me not to choke on the moment. It was harder when Mr. P and the two girls spent an entire driver’s ed session talking about the wonders of this song.
The driver’s ed vehicle had two sets of brakes AND a CD player. During one of our last sessions, Mr. P brought Celine Dion’s latest album and played it twice while we were driving. He and the girls bonded about how great it was and gave me shit for despising it. I honestly hated Celine Dion. But there was something else about the way he played it that galled me: I was sure that he just wanted the girls to like him. And I thought that was pathetic.
The next fall Mr. P was suddenly suspended from work. Before long he was arrested and eventually sentenced for sex with an underage girl. The girl? No, not Ms. L or Mrs. Y but she was someone we knew. She was a friend. She was someone I had had a crush on. The rumors swirled around the school. The girl was vilified. The teacher was made into a child molesting monster (he was over 50 she was just about 16). Shock permeated our small community. Teacher-Student relationships of all kinds were rent asunder.
I don’t know if anyone else ever associated this moment with Celine Dion; or, if anyone ever contemplated the strange and completely random parallel between Celine Dion’s relationship with her producer and this situation. But I could not escape the connection. Every time I heard Celine Dion, even if it was a song from another album, I found myself in the driver’s seat of a car with two sets of brakes feeling slightly uneasy about Mr. P’s praise and the agreement of my friends in the back seat.
The girl, whose story I am stealing, remained my friend. I never mentioned the situation to her. I never asked her about it. Who knows what transpires to make such things happen? She was not someone you’d picture as a victim: she was an outdoorswoman, an avid runner, a cutting wit and a strong presence. To this day I still find it confusing. I still shudder.
And, oddly, when I hear Celine I think back to one of my first reactions, which wasn’t sorrow, sympathy or anger (at him) but hurt feelings—why him (50+, balding and old) and not me? Isn’t that screwed up? What a twisted turn on a twisted turn. That, certainly, is something best left to the dark.
To this day, I lay all of this on Celine Dion. Her music might be terrible, but she doesn’t deserve this.