The Visulite Theatre in Charlotte, N.C., is hidden among a quaint strip of restaurants and shops with clever names and quirky signs.The shabby marquee quietly heralded the night's co-billed Josh Ritter and Gomez show, and a small cluster of people stood outside with the door staff, smoking outside. We parked across the street; I locked my purse and phone in the trunk. Lip gloss, drink money and good company was all I needed.
Leading up to the concert: A long, sunny walk to delicious Southern brunch (fried, syrup-soaked corn cakes? yes, please). Nail-biting basketball games. Pizza and people watching on a shady downtown patio. And a fast highway drive spent belting lyrics to Led Zeppelin, Toad the Wet Sprocket and MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" (my, my, my, my!). In a few fleeting moments that day, I managed to forget everything else in my head and just be content. The sun warmed my face; laughter spread from my toes all the way up to my teeth.
Inside the Visulite, I sipped my gin and tonic as we strolled easily to the front of the crowd. As the audience filled in, we inched closer, lips grazing ears when we spoke. We traded concert stories — well, I listened to him tell concert stories; he talks a lot — and eavesdropped on conversations around us. From members of what would come to be known as the most obnoxious audience ever to attend a concert. (Who still yells "Free Bird!!" during every lull in applause? Really?) For the first time in a while, I was flying blind going into the show: I had no idea what the band members even looked like, and I knew only a few songs by each act. So when the lights went down for the first headliner, it took me a moment to realize that the lanky man on stage with fuzzy hair and a joker's grin was Josh Ritter. For the next hour, I lost myself in that smile and boundless enthusiasm; I danced like a moron to "Rumors," one of my new favorite songs, and sang along to numbers I'd never heard. Even the banshee shrieks of the fangirls behind us faded into the background of my glee.
Ah, the steady climb of the emotional roller coaster before it crests into its downward dive! I don't know what triggered it.
When Ritter and his band left the stage, the floor opened up again, and we ran to the front of the stage, planting ourselves directly in front of the lead singer's microphone. While we waited for Gomez to take the stage, the air got smoky and it became harder for me to breathe. (I cannot say enough how much I love Lawrence, New York and Chicago for their smoking bans.) My eyes wandered as the roadies ran around stage setting up drum kits, plugging in amps and making sure all the pedals were in order. My fingers traced the frayed edges of the faded red oriental rugs lining the stage, and my mind left the room, the city, the state. Where did I go? The band emerged from behind the curtain to thunderous applause, and I clapped along absentmindedly. I didn't know any of the songs, so I just…stared. We were so close to the front of the stage, I was a deer on a dark country road under those hot spotlights. I swayed with the beat for the first few songs, just letting the music wash over me, but not in that "music as spiritual experience" way. After the fifth or sixth song I'd never heard, my lungs needed real air; the distortion was crushing my eardrums; and some hole in my heart had ripped open and I couldn't stop the flood of emotions.
The manic behavior creeping in again, and it terrifies me. I don't know where this is going with him — or even where I want it to go. I'm spending myself into a hole and can't seem to stop. My best friend isn't speaking to me. Drinking makes me a monster. I don't want to be alone, but it's hard to be with someone. I spent the last nine months falling in love with a boy who would never be capable of loving me. And here I am again, latching on to a tiny glimmer of affection, this time 700 miles away from home. Just when it feels like I'm getting a grip on happiness, I slip.
I pushed through the crowd and locked myself in a bathroom stall for a few minutes, gulping deep breaths of stale but smokeless air, then sat in the doorman's easy chair and let the sweat cool against my back in the cool breeze. I didn't want to go back into the concert hall; I was embarrassed that I couldn't swallow the pain and send it back to where it came from for just 12 more hours. But I pushed it down and fought my way back up to the stage; his arm slipped around my waist, and his worried eyes met mine when he asked if I was all right. I forced a smile and said I was fine. (We both knew I wasn't.) The final excruciating minutes of "How We Operate," all fuzz and feedback, nearly made my head explode, and it was all I could do not to trample people just to get back out when the house lights came up. I spoke as little as I could get away with during the long, dark ride back to Winston-Salem. The tears finally came, slumped in the passenger seat, as "Someday You Will Be Loved" played over his Honda's little speakers. I stared out the window at warehouses and car dealerships, suppressing sobs I couldn't trace to a single sadness. But I know I wasn't entirely sure the song would ever be true.
By the time I went to sleep, I was feeling a bit more like the self I'd love to be more often, but those few hours are what's sticking with me now that I'm home. And somehow, writing this down didn't exorcise the pain like I hoped it might.