Never Too Much
by Meredith Graves
We’re leaving Barcelona, heading towards Bilbao to catch an overnight ferry to England. Outside the city lies a near-desert marked by occasional stone foundations, once buildings, trees of some sort, olives or fruit — -the Spanish countryside, orchard-studded and cloudy overhead, is a blur at eighty miles an hour, lovely as anywhere. After last night’s show my throat hurts in a way that is hard to put into words. Just breathing, abiding, it burns. I can’t really speak, my voice, a rasp. I’m an overdramatic child on the verge of tears. I’m homesick. I twist in my earbuds and put on Luther Vandross, because I need to hear someone who can still sing. I close my eyes as the opening bass line dances and swells, it’s become so familiar, and I’m back in Brooklyn tripping on the sidewalk between my apartment and the grocery store. I open my eyes; in the side mirror I can see my face is flushed. It’s incredible how certain songs can carry you in and out of tangible memory. I’m barely in the van any more. I feel tracks rushing under my feet, I close my eyes tight, Luther’s voice carrying me away, my heart swells, I’m on the A train and I’m going to see a boy.
I’ve been on tour since the fall of 2013, when my band became moderately popular overnight, seemingly by accident. We had to make a spontaneous decision — -whether or not to leave our jobs, sign a recording contract, write an album, and take to the road. It’s the most exciting and stupidest decision I’ve ever made. We tour four to six weeks at a time; take three or four days off; then leave again as soon as possible. We spend up to ten hours a day in the van to play for about 25 minutes, then we pack up, sleep somewhere for a few hours, and do it again the next day, seven days a week.
The first time I spit up blood, I figured it was a fluke. A cold, playing too hard, too many cigarettes. But after that first time, it seemed like my body began breaking down at an unparalleled pace. Speaking became uncomfortable. At a level above quiet conversation, it’s actually painful. I try to sing along with the radio and no notes come out, no matter how hard I try. For half an hour every day, I scream until I burst blood vessels around my eyes and nose. It’s my job now. As a result, my vocal chords are destroyed. The first time in my life that people have paid attention to what I have to say and it’s threatening to take my voice away for good.
I’ve sung in bands for twelve years. I grew up doing musical theater and sang opera competitively through high school. I had tremendous range and power. And now it’s just…gone. Turns out, I was rehearsing for twenty-six years for one year of travel, meeting people I never dreamed I’d meet, playing for thousands of people all over the world, living the dream. I would not trade it for anything, but sometimes when I lay down at night, I think about the practical repercussions of my choices and I cry.
By the time we finally got a real break — -one whole month off, from the second week of September up until two weeks ago — -I felt so destroyed and so helpless, I had no idea what to do with myself. So in a flailing, desperate gesture, I moved to Brooklyn with only the contents of my tour suitcase. I might have been in pain and worried about my future, but being in New York made me unbelievably happy. I’m from the Adirondacks — -I’ve never lived in a city. Everything was so new, it was a clean break from ten hours in the van, day in and day out. I fell in love. I quickly realized I could put my headphones in and learn the city by walking and looking, not speaking. There was so much to see.
My first love affair was the subway. Everyone’s there. I eavesdrop on groups of kids at the end of the school day, I try not to stare at old couples holding hands. I snoop relentlessly on what people are reading. With that slack-jawed starry-dipshit look in my eyes, perpetual tourist, babe, pig in the city, giddy and full of gratitude. Like, hi, I’m new here.
I leave early when I have to go somewhere because I like waiting underground in that inconsistent lighting. I stare down the tracks into the dark and wish on rats like shooting stars. And while I wait, I listen to music in my headphones, because everyone, everywhere in New York, is wearing earbuds, or those headphones that aren’t totally noise-canceling, so everyone within blast range is treated to whatever they’re listening to. I like fitting in.
A few days into living in Brooklyn, I start thinking that the miracle of New York is too good to be true and that it might all be a movie — -the headphones thing is just because everyone living it has their own soundtrack — -my lizard brain’s unshakeable assumption is that cameras are following us all the time, the great head movie and you’re the star, it’s everywhere. Show up and you’ll notice it, too — -where scenes start and end, the moment when a new plot point begins to unfold. It’s magic here. The train features prominently — -these are the parts of the film where the main character is removed from whatever scene they’ve just left and is thrust into an unpredictable situation, surrounded by strangers. One stop, a full mariachi band enters your car; the next, a woman crying. Get lost in a book and stay on one stop too far and you run into someone you’ve been dying to see. Choose your own adventure, and with your omnipresent earbuds, choose your own soundtrack.
My second love affair in New York, after the subway, is someone I met my second week here. He has disconnected the line between my brain and mouth. He is smart and funny and makes me extremely nervous. Up until this point, it seems as if it is physically impossible for me to tell him how I feel. I couldn’t possibly have anticipated my character meeting the male romantic lead this early on in the script, which worries me, but I realized he was a key plot point when the soundtrack started to change. Suddenly funny romantic music was everywhere.
I’d get on the train to go meet him somewhere and I’d listen to that Luther Vandross song, turned up until it made my eardrums bounce. It’s a song about how good it feels when you grow a set and reveal your scary secret feelings to someone you really, really like, and they return them. It’s a song about diving in with a person who makes you completely fucking freak out every time you look at them.
Scene: You hear a train pulling up so you start to walk faster. There are thirty elementary-aged kids running to meet the train. It feels like swimming in a school of fish. You slouch at a safe distance from the accordionist who plays at that platform in the afternoon, because you don’t want to let on that you’re getting a free show. You leave your headphones in but turn the music off and pretend you aren’t paying attention. You’re reading Graham Greene but you can’t focus because you’re thinking about the man again. It’s hot and you sweat through your shirt. The tunnel is dark and the train coming on the opposite track exhales forceful breath onto the wrong side of your face. The accordion player makes eye contact with you and starts in on ‘La Valse d’Amelie,’ the theme from your favorite film. You furrow your brow as you assume he’s making fun of you. You duck behind your book where you look around, shocked and agape. The world is not real, someone set this up, you’re being filmed. The train pulls up.
You swear people can see your heart through your shirt. You stand and lean your head against the sliding doors, drying your bangs under the air vent. You put on that Luther Vandross song and turn it up. It’s a song about the other side of the line you cross when you finally tell someone you’re falling for them. Once you say it once, you can say it over and over again, you can scream it, but first, you have to say it once — -”a thousand kisses from you is never too much” — -but you’re not there yet. After all, you can barely speak.
There’s something about having your voice physically taken away from you that makes you think much more before you talk. When it hurts to have a conversation, you’re more careful with what you say. When you take a risk and speak your truth, but lose your voice, you start thinking more about what else you have to lose. And every time you’re with him, when your toes are on that line, when you’re about to jump, you either come up with an excuse or physically put your hand over your mouth to stop yourself from saying what you’re thinking. For some reason, it’s really scary. If you tell him how you feel, the stars will fall from the sky. Clouds will turn to ash as hell itself rains down and an epoch of darkness as yet unparalleled will visit our species. You can’t tell him, because the second you do, you become vulnerable. It all goes to shit and garbage. You can believe anything you want if it’s just you, over there in your weird happy place, but the second you need someone else to validate your truth, the second you open yourself up to the idea that your crush isn’t mutual, prepare to be, well, crushed.
Scene: the people on the train and all those kids are staring at you because you didn’t even realize you were dancing. You frown at the feeling of something like love, but more frightening — -the love before love, when everything still feels like a colossal secret you can barely keep to yourself, that you’ll tell everyone about except the person for whom your feelings are intended. Your friends know, your boss or your mother or someone else who half-listens and says — -go for it, it sounds like he likes you, too — -they know. Your iTunes knows because the play count on that Luther Vandross song has increased by one hundred over the course of a long weekend.
The warmest points on the insides of your wrists and behind your ears smell like vanilla, like violets, you brush your teeth more often, the space where your thighs meet is a few degrees hotter all the time and the place in your chest where you think your heart might be feels like a bottle of champagne. It seems like the cashiers at the coffee shop can sense it, strangers stare and smile in a curious way, dogs pull at their leashes just to be pet by you. Your clothes fit better, the wings of your eyeliner are more even than usual, the flowers you buy at the market stay alive a day longer than expected and the baker who always runs out of donuts early totally still has donuts. Your tea is the perfect temperature, even the hold music at Planned Parenthood is lovely. Songs you listen to over and over don’t get old, only more beautiful. The train is never more than a few minutes late. You wake easily in the morning excited to go about your day. Sunlight and the breeze are served up bottomless, New York is incredible, the universe is your set designer, the cameras are rolling. Even the fact that your voice is gone, shredded, stops feeling like a death knell for a little while. After all, you haven’t ruined anything yet. You don’t know where the next scene will take you. There’s still hope. Never too much.
Scene: you arrive in Bilbao after nine hours driving from Barcelona and you board the ferry where you’ll be spending the next 24 hours. You check into your cabin. After nine days of shows, you cough blood into the bathroom sink. You slip and let yourself wonder how he’s doing, as you haven’t let yourself contact him much since you arrived. You want to give him some space. There’s an awful storm and the boat is rocking all night. You vomit repeatedly for an hour into a plastic garbage can, acrid yellow slurry of bile and water and yogurt and ginger biscuits, and it singes your already raw throat until your eyes well up with tears. You pass out without brushing your teeth. You sleep for twenty of the next 24 hours and dream about kissing him. The next morning you steel yourself and email him two sentences: “You were in my dream last night, and I woke up missing you. It was strange.”
Scene: flashback, montage — -for a week before you leave, every time you look into each other’s eyes like you’re daring the other person to say something brave first, you laugh and say, “I’ll deal with this when I get back from Europe.” You suppose it will be easier to tell him then. You’ll find your voice by then, the words will come to you while you’re over there. You’ll tell him somehow. You’ll find a way.