A guy at the door rolled a rubber stamp across the top of my clenched fist after I paid my cover. I finally managed to decipher it after three beers, just before it washed off. The smudged black ink read “BULLSHIT.”
This, in the end, means very little.
The Viaduct Theatre is located under the overpass between the express and local lanes of a Chicago street that never needed to be divided as such. The deserted stretch of Western Avenue was even more desolate last night; a steady rain was falling as I walked from the bus toward the theatre’s blinking red sign. The door is solid metal, unmarked except for a meaningless swish of graffiti. I looked up to be sure I was walking in the right entrance, even though another woman had walked in not 15 seconds before me. The bar was warm and dry, filled with vaguely familiar faces, some I would have recognized immediately this spring. But after four months of self-imposed exile, they were little more than hazy reminders of the life I’d run away from. I grabbed my first beer, half for the taste and half to take the edge off, wondering how I’d explain myself when the time came to actually speak to someone. I’d worn clothes meant to help me blend in: jeans (not too tight), dark grey V-neck (not too deep), brown vest, modest jewelry. My necklace had sentimental value. Saved by the opening of the concert hall doors. The audience plunged into the darkness and the lights went up on stage: drums, keyboard, bass, fiddle and a mess of guitars. The Knight picked up an electric -- a sparkling blue Eastman that he’d saved for months to buy, shortly after our breakup -- and finished tuning with the group. The band had been assembled from the cream of the Old Town School crop to perform Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in its entirety, in order: the realization of one of the Knight’s longtime dreams, done with a group talented enough to do the album justice. He stepped to the microphone, tentatively, for the second track of side one, “Beside You.” It was one of the first Van songs he ever sent me – though it would be hard to say for sure, given the flurry of files I got in the first few months of our courtship – and his timidity quickly faded as he played the first brooding arpeggios that led into his lead vocals. He couldn’t find me in the audience with the spotlights in his eyes, but he sang straight to me. A muse once again.
I cried. Well, my lip quivered and tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t imagine having missed this. It’s strange being grateful for one’s own free will, but there it was: I was so thankful to have made that choice, to have rethought my decision and retraced my steps.
The band played through side one and flipped to side two with minimal chatter, and finished the show with a set of Van Morrison’s other songs.
The house lights came up; the music over the sound system was hollow and tinny after the rich blanket of sound that had warmed me for the past two hours. I stayed behind after the audience had filed out of the auditorium, long after midnight. The staff shuffled in to pick up leftover label-peeled beer bottles and plastic cups with melting ice and squeezed-out lime wedges, rearrange the tables and sweep the floors. The band gradually broke down the stage, unplugging amps and putting instruments back in their cases. I’d steeled myself, during my two bus rides, for the explanations I would owe everyone I saw, who had known us as a couple. Where I’d been, what had happened. Why I was suddenly back as if nothing had happened. (As if.) But it turns out I’m not nearly so consequential. My absence from this circle of friends had gone largely unnoticed, except, apparently, in the deadened twinkle in the Knight’s eyes. People were surprised to see me, but they didn’t demand an explanation. The Michael Jackson dance moves and punch-drunk, beer-drunk jokes went on as if nothing had happened. (As if.)
Western Avenue was as desolate as it had been when I arrived, alone, but the rain had stopped and everything was different as I walked out with him, carrying a guitar case in each hand across the street to the Shining Camry. Beside you.
Our own Summer of Silence broken, out in the open. And I’m not sorry.