By Megan Koehler
We were sixteen and we were in love.
Not with each other, or anyone else in particular—don’t be ridiculous. We were in love with the idea of being in love, and Ben Folds* was the narrator of that longing.
We listened to “Brick” and wondered if we would ever get an abortion ourselves. Never mind that we’d never been kissed. We spent hours and hours agonizing. Would we have the courage to go through with The Procedure when our turn came, and would we tell anyone?
Of course, we’d tell each other, we told each other everything. We swore that we’d pick the right guy to have sex with since we were inevitably going to end up in a silent car ride to the hospital (most of our interactions with guys were silent anyway).
After school, Lauren and I huddled shoulder to shoulder on the floor of her bedroom to cram for social studies, because after all, we were serious scholars. We invented mnemonic devices, “Frick is a Prick,” “Carnegie had nerves of steel,” “The eight knights of labor bargain collectively,” because we knew how to achieve A’s, the de facto expectation of brilliant scholastic minds like ours.
Sometimes, we’d separate in order to concentrate, knowing full well that we weren’t making any real progress together. We’d make it through a chapter, until, itching with energy and our entitled boredom, one of us would slide Whatever and Ever Amen into the boom box and we’d dance to “Stephen’s Last Night in Town.”
How clever, these words! “We thought he was gone, but now he’s come back again. Last week it was funny, and now the joke’s wearing thin. Everyone knows now that every night now would be Stephen’s last night in town!” And, how clever we were, to unpack the lyrics and really “get” them. Stephen was their best worst friend! What ridiculous antics twenty-somethings got into while making misguided life choices! Reflecting on this resonance, we figured we must nearly be adults. (We fantasized about our future selves at twenty-three, the perfect age, when we’d finally know how to dress ourselves and be mature, professional women.)
We strove for uniqueness amidst the conformity, knowing full well that everyone who’d ever gone to James Madison Memorial read our same textbook, and had learned about unions and their right to strike. In the face of this universality, Lauren and I supported all strikers passionately, marveling at their ability to organize and rise up against The Man. (Never mind that the only unionized people we knew were our teachers, and that we all hoped that the biennial teacher’s salary renegotiation would not fall on the year we needed them to write references for our college applications.)
The study/dance rotation would continue until Lauren’s mom pulled out the air popper and made us a bowl of margarine-soaked popcorn. Once free of the manacles of our education, we returned to our favorite subject: the individual, intimate relationship that we alone had with Ben Folds Five. No other fan (and we were so much more than fans) understood the desires and angst of our dorky troubadour. We were constantly astonished that he could cuss so literally and perfectly with a vengeance we could feel over a sweet piano lick: “Give me my money back, you bitch! ... And don’t forget to give me back my black t-shirt!”
That year was remarkably unremarkable. We learned about phase change and how to perform a layup, should we ever learn to coordinate our feet and hands. We flirted with guys we didn’t realize were popular and therefore embarrassingly off-limits, and guys we had never heard speak out loud. And by flirted, I mean, stared at from across the room or made eye contact during passing periods but never actually had a conversation with. Through the implementation of this strategy, we avoided the outright shame of rejection, while blissfully fanning the flames of desire.
For our wild nights out, our parents dropped us off at the TGI Fridays for bottomless vanilla Diet Cokes, and equally bottomless giggling, gossiping and wondering. We speculated about the adults at the bar. We suspected they might be losers, because they were hanging out at a high school joint, but then again, those Long Island iced teas and icy Blue Hawaiians did look pretty tasty.
We imagined whom we’d ask to formal dances, because why should we wait around for some guy to ask us? (We understood that we were living in a post-feminist society; the fight for gender equality having already been won. We would eventually grow up and leave our university town and be surprised and dismayed by the truth.) And then secretly wondered how awesome and awkward it would be if one of us were asked and had to hang out with friends who were above us in our social hierarchy.
In the end, Bridget and Jess got asked to prom by some guys we had never heard of, stoners maybe? They accidentally got the same dress, and who knows if they had fun because we never spoke to them again. (They were suddenly too cool for us; we would have taken them back.)
And then Lauren’s family announced that they’d be moving to Ohio after the end of the school year. Suddenly, we knew what true heartbreak was. But oh, what a relief! To cry and wail into my pillow at night, knowing that I was capable of such depth of emotion that I’d only suspected before. “Here I stand. Sad and free. And I can’t cry. And I can’t see. What I’ve done, oh God, what have I done?”
The words didn’t seem to match, but it was the sentiment that mattered. “I poured my heart out. It evaporated.”
I spared my parents the downward spiral of my agony by listening to “Smoke” on repeat on my Walkman. Nonetheless, they heard me whimpering to the lyrics: “Those who say the past is not dead, stop and smell the smoke!” I flipped through photos of my years at camp with Lauren, clipping together a poster of our most cherished moments. We must be friends forever (in retrospect, clipping our names out of National Geographic headlines may have been a step too close to a ransom note, but who was I to stifle passion?).
We spent one last glorious week at camp, celebrating our decade of being ostracized as dreary academics. We belonged to a shared history, tradition, and tribe. We promised each other that we’d always be friends and we’d always remember our inside jokes, which we wrote down on a camp songbook for posterity, not that we’d ever need something to jog our memories, not us. (To this day, I have no idea why the word “whopper” was so funny, though it’s written in all the margins and appears to have been our noun of choice. I’m too afraid to ask for fear that it meant something truly important that I should be ashamed to have forgotten.)
And then she was gone. Swept away to the heartland, where she’d certainly have to endure a lesser people. I turned back to my Walkman and my tears, imagining my picture collage on the wall of her new bare bedroom in what I could only imagine was a soulless suburban track home, reminding her of all the good times. I thought about the year ahead and wasn’t sure if I could survive high school without Lauren by my side. I felt deeply the emptiness left behind by my evaporated heart.
Now it’s smoke
The things we’ve written in it
Never really happened
All of the people come and gone
With a concerned look, my dad sat me down with a bottle of Visine, and what appeared to be the intention of a deep and awkward conversation. It felt like the time had come for a show of my magnificent, yet quiet, inner strength, so I swallowed my pride. I asked my dad if he would drive me to Summerfest in Milwaukee to see Ben Folds play live, a trip Lauren and I had been planning for months, before her parents got in the way.
And so, the first concert I ever went to was with my dad. To further demonstrate his support, he popped my CD into the deck in the car on the way there and tried to sing along, while I rolled my eyes. I mean, this was MY band. But the show was in another city, another place, so realizing I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, I quickly put my embarrassment aside and gave into the beat.
The moment I saw Ben Folds hunched over the piano, pouring out his heart, I was profoundly moved by the intimate beauty of his voice, the rhythm, and the sincerity of his delivery. Looking around, I saw others bobbing along, entranced with glistening eyes, and was shocked to realize that everyone around me felt the same.
Could all these people really connect with him on the deep level that Lauren and I had? Were we unknowingly part of a larger tribe? Did we belong in a way that we thought had expressly meant that we didn’t? Worst of all, were we no longer unique?
Fortunately, at some point, I stopped thinking. I was pure emotion: joy, layered over the visceral agony of yearning. As everyone joined in on the horn parts, I felt it in my belly and the corners of my eyes, the magnetism of our minstrel, pulling and binding us together.
When I got in the car to drive to the first day of my senior year, the oldies station offered a cruel awakening as it blasted this refrain: “oh blah di oh blah da life goes on!” Shut up, oldies! (It was just my luck this was the only station the radio tuned in, ever.) As if The Beatles could understand the pain of youth. And yet, life did go on.
I felt more mature for my suffering, and more distant from all my friends. Lauren and I maintained our connection through long phone calls and the advent of instant messenger. I watched as her friendships with our very best childhood friends fell by the wayside. But our connection lasted. Because we were unique and passing the long distance test proved it.
All I know is I’ve gotta be
Where my heart says I oughta be
I carried the Ben Folds torch through college, and though we went to different schools, Lauren and I talked a lot, but no longer so much about Ben Folds. We bonded over loves lost, our silent, passing flirtations with men turned into nighttime interludes, still without much conversation or connection. We continued to imagine our future professional lives, hoping we might end up in the same town again one day, wondering what it might be like to live in a big city like Chicago.
On my own, I searched out like-minded souls, and thought that a mutual understanding of Ben Folds surely meant something great and unspoken, not realizing that he was touring every single college in America that year. Whispering his lyrics over late-night midori sours led me down a dark and beautiful emo path to Elliott Smith and the Velvet Underground, among others. My wardrobe took a turn for the monochromatic, until I finally realized I did not look good in black.
I found that my friends who worked at the radio station were a breed of cool that I never knew existed. They held their superior musical knowledge over my head like a trophy despite the fact that they were even more insecure than I was. When I sang along with The Ramones, they immediately put on something obscure, lamenting that I only knew popular music (I didn’t even know that; the only radio I’d listened to until recently was “oh blah di oh blah da life goes on!”).
I searched for years for another band that could give me that feeling I first felt with dear old Ben: the knowing sparkle, the warm pulse up my spine, the twisting in my gut. I poured my heart out time after time as Ben Folds might have implored, willing myself to be open to the agony of yearning, but remained “selfless, cold and composed.”
Like you’ve got nothing to prove
No matter what you might do
There’s always someone cooler than you
Years later, once Lauren and I were both married to nice guys (having learned that relationships were more about conversations and shared interests than constant longing) and grown (having learned that by age thirty-three we still didn’t know how to dress ourselves or understand the actual trajectory of our professional lives, but were pretty much cool with that), we eventually had the opportunity to live in the same city once again. We had a glorious year of creating new memories, and boring our new husbands with limited, context-less remembrances of our childhood stories, but mostly rediscovering our friendship and our city through the lens of a shared history. I casually dropped the word “whopper” into conversation, and was relieved that Lauren didn’t give me a knowing glance in return. We even discussed unions once again, as they were busted back home, causing my parents to retire early (we hadn’t even known they were unionized). I recognized a glimmer of that passion we once had, but mostly just felt content, which in my thirties was the welcome peak of my emotional scale.
And then came the news that demonstrated that our being brought back together was meant to be: Ben Folds would be playing with the local symphony later that year. I thought it was a sign. Lauren and I bought two tickets and spent months anticipating the reunion. We dug up old CDs, and recalled memories anchored to Ben Folds’ touring schedule, digging deep for that hit of nostalgia and romance. We recalled the demise of Ben Folds Five and the beginnings of his solo career, remembering that he had chronicled his tales of falling in love and having kids, and wondered where he had ended up now, and if our lives had remained in parallel as we trailed behind our pied piper.
Then, just as quickly, Lauren and her husband decided to move back to Ohio. Before the concert, even. The mature, adult version of me said “of course” and wished them well, and then silently cried on the bus every time I thought of the impending reprise of loneliness.
I took my husband to see Ben Folds, amazed that he missed out on this chapter of my life, amazed to learn that he had never even listened to one of his albums. The symphony hall was packed with the buzz of thirty-somethings, all who would shortly be singing along to every single lyric. I saw clearly that the thing that I thought was uniquely mine and Lauren’s was a thing to be shared.
The strings tuned, and the music rose out of the silence. We all sang the horn parts. And I felt a sparkle, and my stomach clenched.
I poured my heart out.
*dorky troubadour of mid-nineties fame, frontman of Ben Folds Five, who went on to a successful solo career after the band broke up in 1999. Their sophomore album nearly made Billboard Top 40 in 1997, coincidentally my own sophomore year of high school.
Megan Koehler lives in San Francisco where she is working on a screenplay about a starlet hiding in plain sight on a reality show. She also co-produces a documentary film focused on the science of meditation, and writes personal essays about the pain and humor in everyday life.