The stranger’s eyes flicked skeptically between my neatly laminated driver’s license in his hand and my face as a cue of people steadily began to build up behind me. Just beyond his shoulder, towering far above mine, the rumble of the bass within the club shook the ground in time with the flashing red lights. Even from the bottom of the staircase that led to the club’s entrance, I could smell the familiar scent of cigarette smoke, dust, and body odor crawling along the floorboards and rising toward the street above. This entryway was another world, nestled between one of the busiest streets in town and the loudest joints in the neighborhood. Every part of me ached to get inside, as the stale air in between was making my head hurt.
My parents said that that was what I got from listening to music too loud. Now, the silence hurt my ears more than the noise.
The man guarding the doors heaved a long sigh, sliding my I.D. across the stained surface of the plastic table and shaking his head. “It’s a pretty good fake.”
I couldn’t help but shrivel the slightest bit, even knowing that I’d been in the same situation countless times. “It’s real. I swear.”
He looked me over again, this time from head to toe, as if he’d find something different on second glance. While I was grateful that my earnestness won me a second appraisal, I could still plainly see the disbelief mingling with the foggy reflections in his dark eyes as he watched me. For a few seconds, his gaze passed over me, taking in my short stature and lingering on my undeniably youthful face, still clinging to the baby fat in my cheeks that I was beginning to believe wasn’t baby fat at all.
A chorus of cheers rose up from inside the club, and I pushed my I.D. back across the table. “It’s real. Do whatever you need to do. It’s not a fake.”
Just when he was standing from behind the folding table and bracing to escort me outside, a figure melted out of the club’s chaos, pushing her way to me. I breathed a deep sigh of relief as her deep red curls became visible, ducking out of the darkness and into the dimly lit stairwell with a wide grin. The bouncer opened his mouth to say something as the girl headed straight for me, engulfing me in a quick, tight hug. I embraced the scent of her tropical conditioner fighting with the smoke as she shoved my face into her curls, then turned to the man.
“Hey, it’s no problem. She’s with me.” He skeptically looked back toward me, but even as he did, the girl was already dragging me through the door, calling over the din, “It’s a real I.D., for the record. Take a smoke break or something.”
Luckily, the bouncer didn’t follow as the girl pulled me into the club, shouldering her way easily through the suffocating crowd while keeping a tight grip on my wrist. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered what it would be like to walk a mile in her studded platform boots, swimming through crowds like water and talking to strangers like old friends. I could never handle it, though. I’d realized this for sure when I tried to pin my hair up in a mimicked side-shave like hers, and ended up looking like a cancer patient. Like her red hair dye would never stick to my curls, my feet would never fit in her boots.
So I hid in her wake.
When we finally broke free from the crowd and slouched into seats at the bar in the back, she grinned, fanning her face with her hand and shouting to be heard over the noise. “We need to put you on a list or something! The man-meat at the door is seriously useless.”
I chuckled. “Thanks, Eva. You’re a life-saver.”
She shook her head, waving me away. “Just looking out for my favorite groupie.”
I smiled in gratitude. “You should get backstage. Don’t want you missing warm-ups or anything.”
Eva laughed out loud, standing and bumping her stool toward the counter with her hip. “Honey, I’m always warmed up.” Before leaving, she held her hand up in the air, waving to the bartender at the other end of the bar and shouting in that voice that effortlessly carried even over the roar of the crowd, “Hey, Rob! Get a drink for my friend down here!”
With that, she winked and dove into the crowd, swimming toward the stage where her band undoubtedly waited.
Peace amongst the noise restored.
I let out a long sigh, turning toward the bar and squinting at the old wood of the counter. Like most of the BrickHouse, the bar’s counter was decorated in scratches from fights and rings from abandoned drinks, covered in places by discolored stickers sneakily added by patrons. It took a few seconds of clearing the surface of discarded napkins and empty glasses before I uncovered a sheet of printer paper taped to the wood. The setlist for the night was partially obscured by a dark stain on the corner, but I could still make out most of the words as I smoothed out the wrinkles.
A couple regular bands were set to perform later, as most of the popular acts did. I recognized Ear Candy, PaPa Ra!, and WIG; they’d all been performing at the BrickHouse for long enough to accumulate a decent following, but not long enough to move onto a joint that actually paid them. Like usual, though, there were some names I wasn’t familiar with. That was why I was here, after all.
Rocky, The Demolition Crew, and TBA all sounded new. I’d spent most of the past month scouting the few other music venues in the city, so I wasn’t up date with the newer rotation. Even with my reservations, though (TBA? Really?), I was always a bit more excited to return to the BrickHouse. Up-and-comers from the bad side of town always seemed to have more potential and passion than the school supervised bands from the upper end.
As I traced my finger over the names, the bartender made his way over to me, aggressively shaking a drink over his shoulder. “Hey. Friend of Eva?” he asked.
I shrugged. “More like a groupie, probably.”
“I don’t know. She seems to like you,” he said, leaning an elbow on the counter. It was sort of strange seeing someone close to my age bartending here, as the regular bartenders were old enough to be my father. I could already tell this young man was too fresh to last long here. He’d go somewhere where they would way him enough for his time.
“You must be new,” I said. “She acts like that with everyone.”
He chuckled. “You got me. So, what’ll it be?”
“Just a water, thanks.”
The young man sighed, turning his back on me as he headed toward the sink, saying, “That’ll be fun.”
I waited patiently for him to return with my glass of water, peering at the jostling crowd as music pounded from the nearby speakers. While it was almost nine, the turnout was still surprising for a new band. The regulars wouldn’t be on for another 15 minutes at least, and the mosh pit usually didn’t get too full until 10 or 11.
“Hey, who is this?” I asked the bartender as he handed me my drink.
“These guys?” he asked, squinting at the band on stage. Surely from his vantage point, he could see them fairly well. “TBA, I think. They’ve had a pretty good turnout the last week or two.”
I pursed my lips, watching the crowd and trying to imagine what the band looked like beyond.
“Not much to listen to, though,” the bartender shouted over the noise. “My band and I could crush them. We’re starting here next month, and we’ll blow them out of the water.”
I nodded, not really listening. TBA certainly wasn’t very impressive, playing too loud into the club’s shoddy speakers and vibrating all over the place. The drum part was wild and distracting, the rhythm guitar was painfully boring, and the transitions between sections were rocky at best. In fact, the only thing that made up for the sloppy performance was the vocalist’s chops and the guitar solo during the bridge.
Still, though, I heard potential in the mess. I could see why people came to listen to them, even if they didn’t seem to quite know their own sound yet.
Then again, maybe the audience was just drunk enough to appreciate anything.
As the band began to draw toward the end of their set, Eva melted out of the audience once more and headed for me, grinning as she grabbed my hand and asked me to join her band backstage.
“You know only performers are allowed backstage,” the bartender said, pretending not to watch us as he worked.
Eva scowled. “Make yourself a drink or something.”
Without waiting for my response, she pulled me off of my stool and dragged me headlong into the crowd for the second time, weaving through strangers like it was second nature. After years of visiting music venues in my free time, I still wasn’t comfortable enough to brave the pit like Eva did. Of course, her height and confidence made her a bit more of a force to be reckoned with in a crowd. I might as well have been a mouse skittering along the scuffed wooden floorboards.
“We’re still not on for a few minutes, but I want you to get a good seat, you know?” Eva yelled above the noise, tugging at my wrist as we slipped through the side door at the base of the stage. Backstage, it was nearly as loud, but we could finally breath as we passed discarded instruments and crooked stools as we headed toward the waiting room.
Behind the cramped quarters of the backstage area, there was a closet-sized room with two stained velvet couches, a case of water bottles, and an assortment of trash strewn about. Eva’s four-piece band, WIG, occupied the room as they waited for their turn on stage. The other girls—suspiciously like Eva in appearance but horribly unlike her in talent—lounged on the couches, throwing crumbled fast food wrappers at each other while lazily checking their tuning. Eva ushered me inside and shoved one of the girls to the side to make room for me on one of the couches. Through the open door, I could clearly see TBA performing the end of their set, ignoring the noise coming from stage right.
Although it was much harder to get a sonic picture of the sound from behind the speakers, I could finally see the band behind the noise. Although the drummer was just out of view at the back of the stage, the other three members were visible as they burned through their set. Closest to us, the keyboardist and bassist rocked to the beat while the vocalist and rhythm guitarist interacted with us. I couldn’t deny that immediately, the lead guitarist caught my eye. His movements and mannerisms were even bigger than the vocalist’s, captivating the stage and taking up more room than most musicians could carry. The back of his tee shirt stuck to his back as he moved, wrinkling like a second skin under the intense stage lights. Although his face wasn’t visible from my angle, I could imagine the way his foreign features would contort with passion as he lead the band through their song.
Sometimes, it took a few performances for me to nail down the heart of a band. Every band had a center—the person who subconsciously controlled the beat, energy, and life of every performance. It wasn’t like the drummer counting the tempo at the beginning of a song. A band’s “heart” lead every aspect of the band without anyone realizing it.
I knew without a moment of hesitation that this guitarist was TBA’s heart.
The band was already at the end of its set, so I watched in silent from the prep room as the ladies of WIG shuffled in and out of view, getting their instruments ready to play. When they finished their last song, the club filled with applause and rowdy cheers as the stage lights dimmed. TBA left the stage, squeezing one by one past the girls as they hurried toward the side door. The guitarist trailed in from the back, lingering on the stage and absorbing the applause for just a few moments longer than the rest of his band. After the girls jostled him about and tossed him back into the prep room, his wild eyes found mine.
“Were you listening?” he asked breathlessly.
His hand ran roughly through his long hair, petting down the dark tips that dripped with sweat. The silver necklaces around his neck clinked brightly together as he stepped further into the room, wiping the sweat from his brow.
I quickly shook my head. “I only heard the end.”
“That’s enough,” he said, grinning and grabbing my hand in his warm one. Before I could stop him, he’d effortlessly pulled me off of the old couch. “Let me buy you a drink.”
I tugged my hand away, hiding it behind my back. “Um, that’s okay. I’m not thirsty.”
“Well I have to pay you for your thoughts somehow, and I’m not sure how much cash I have,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
“My thoughts?” I asked.
He nodded eagerly. “I want to know what you thought of our set!”
I stared at him. “You guys were good.”
He laughed. The sound was strangely melodic. “No, what you really think! I want to pick your brain. Let me buy you a drink in exchange for your unfiltered opinion.”
“You don’t have to pay me for that.”
“Of course I do!” he said. “Never give people your thoughts for free. You’re worth more than that.”
Somewhere behind him, I heard Eva greet the audience, followed by a round of cheers.
“So, can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
I let my desire to please the stranger override my nervousness. “Sure.”
With a bright grin, he turned and headed toward the side door, where the two of us soon emerged out in the rowdy crowd. He guided me through the tightly-knit audience, finding air pockets in between the sticky masses of people and weaving toward the back on the room. His height and intense presence cleared a path in a way Eva couldn’t. When we slid between people, we jostled shoulders and they would slink out of the way instead of pushing back. I huddled close to his back, studying the wrinkles in his tee shirt and the way they rippled against his sweat-slick skin.
Finally, we broke free from the crowd and slid into seats at the nearly empty bar. Luckily, WIG was one of the more popular acts at the BrickHouse, so with the start of their set, most of the bar cleared out. The stranger and I claimed seats at the end by the back door, where the suffocating claustrophobia of the room wasn’t so strong. I wondered if he noticed this, or whether he just sat where I always did by coincidence.
“Preston!” the stranger yelled over the din, waving to the bartender. When Preston joined us, the guy gestured toward me and said, “Get the lady whatever she wants.”
Preston raised an eyebrow. “Another water?”
I crossed my arms self-consciously over my chest. “Rum and coke. Strong.”
He chuckled condescendingly as he made his way down the bar again.
I glanced toward the stranger. “You’re not getting anything?”
He smiled sheepishly. “I can only afford one tonight?”
“I told you I don’t need anything,” I said.
“And I told you not to sell your thoughts for nothing,” he replied with a smiled. After wiping his palm on the frayed seem of his jeans, he held out a hand to me. When I accepted the gestured, his long fingers easily encapsulated my hold hand, my dark skin hiding beneath his pale knuckles. “I’m Pete. My band, TBA, just started here a couple weeks ago. I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
I nodded. “It’s been a while since I’ve come by.” Then realizing I hadn’t accepted his introduction, I quickly added, “I’m Nadia.”
Pete rested his head on his hand, leaning heavily on the bar’s surface. “Pretty name.” Before I could determine whether or not he was trying to flirt with me, he continued. “So, about the performance. What’d you think? How’d we do?”
“You were good,” I said simply, watching as Preston appeared again and left my rum and coke with me.
He sighed, smiling as his dark hair fell in damp strands over his forehead. The style was messy, and I couldn’t figure out whether it was like that from performing, or whether it’d started that way.
“Come on,” he said, watching me closely. “Break my heart.”
“I don’t even know you.”
“That’s why you should break my heart!” he laughed. “Tell me what you really think. Pull no punches. We can’t improve until I know what people think of us.”
When I only stared at him for a few moments, he sighed.
“Look, I’m the leader of this band, okay? They’re all my friends, but I brought them together, and I’m responsible for how well we do. I write the music, I book the gigs. I do all these things for the band, but I need like what they really need is an honest critique of how we’re doing, and I can’t give that. I’m too close, you know? I need an outside opinion. You look like you know a thing or two about music from the way you were watching us, and you did get backstage. Just… tell me what I need to do to get your opinion. I need something to go on.”
I took a big gulp of my drink, trying not to react to the mouthful of straight rum.
“Hurt my feelings,” Pete, grinning eagerly. “Please, I need something to go on.”
I cringed, but he only nodded encouragingly. After a few moments of silence when I realized that he was, in fact serious, I sighed deeply and turned my body toward him on my stool.
“You guys are messy,” I said simply. His eyes widened in surprise. “It sounds like you haven’t been playing together for very long. You play at the same tempo, but you don’t play together. Your energies are all off. It’s like you’re playing different songs.”
Slowly, Pete’s shock dissolved into a smile. “Really?”
I nodded. “It’s hard to listen to. You don’t sound like a band. You sound like a group of musicians coincidentally playing the same song.”
He nodded. “How do we fix it?”
I shrugged. “Have you ever talked about what your songs actually mean?”
“You mean, have I ever explained it outright? Not… exactly.”
“Do it,” I urged. “You’re not going to play on the same page if you’re playing different messages. The music doesn’t matter if the sentiment is different.”
“Got it,” he said excitedly. “What else?”
“Your drummer sounds really skilled,” I added. “but she has no idea how to play in a band.”
Pete touched the back of his neck sheepishly. “Sometimes she can… go overboard.”
“It’s not just her, though,” I explained. “She plays really expressively and dynamically, but the rest of the band doesn’t match her. She may be the one not syncing with the band, but she ends up making you all sounds bad in comparison. Most teachers would tell her to back off, but I think you should all try to rise to her level.”
Pete nodded. “You’re right.”
“And what’s with your keyboardist? It looks like he doesn’t even want to play. His indifferent is totally bringing down the band’s energy. He’s hard to look at.”
Pete sighed. “Yeah…”
“And don’t even get me started on your rhythm guitarist. Every chord he played buzzed. He sounds amateurish at best.”
Pete winced. “What about the other two?”
“The bassist and vocalist?” I asked, shrugging. “I don’t really have anything to say about them. They both seem insecure about their skill and being on stage. The vocalist is good, but I can’t stand the way she shies away from high notes. It’s like, what are you afraid of?”
Pete pursed his lips. “I know. I’ve been trying to work on that with them, but if you noticed, clearly we need to work harder.”
“Confidence isn’t easy,” I relented. “I’m not saying I’m surprised that they’re like that, just that people won’t be compelled to watch a band who doesn’t own the stage. It takes work to believe in yourself.”
“No kidding,” Pete chuckled.
A brief silence settled over us, and I took another sip of my rum.
“What about me?” he finally asked. “How was I?”
I sighed, reminding myself to be honest. “Your stage presence is electric. People can’t help but watch you.”
He didn’t smile. “But what did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, really,” I admitted. “Aside from stealing attention from the vocalist, your skills are solid, your presence is great, and your solos are interesting, if a bit bizarre. It’s clear that you’re in charge.”
Pete stares at me in silence for a few moments before cracking a smile. “What happened to breaking my heart? You were doing so well there.”
I took a deep breath and looked away.
“I knew you looked like you knew music, but I didn’t realize you’d be that amazing. I feel like I just got a master class.”
I tried to shake the blush off my cheeks. Just when I was about to messily put together a response, his phone began to ring, and with a smile, he quickly answered it. I watched the way his mouth moved under the club’s dim lights. I’d always thought that people looked beautiful under the erratic, colorful lights of music venues, but his features were truly made for it. The red reflected in his amber eyes as he hung up and turned back to me.
“That’s the band. They’re looking for me.”
“Oh. Don’t let me keep you, then,” I said quickly.
He shook his head. “I can meet them at home. There’s still more I feel like you can teach me.”
“That might cost you more than a drink,” I joked tentatively.
“Then next time I’ll buy you dinner,” he decided. Before I could reject the offer, he asked, “Will you be here next week?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
He grinned. “I always say that, too, but it just keeps pulling me back.” He pats my back as he stands, a grin plastered on his face. “Next time I see you, I’ll buy dinner, okay?”
I nodded, not knowing what else to do.
He smiled. “Thanks, Nadia.”
Without a goodbye, he left me at the bar, slipping out the back door without disturbing any of the club’s patrons, all jostling for a place in front of the band as WIG brought down the house with their exceptionally average set. I stared into my rum and coke.
The night was young, but I decided I’d had more than enough of the BrickHouse for one night.