“A warm mid-summer night in the Emerald City and we’re off to see the wizard,” Raul said.
“I’ve never understood why Seattle got that nickname and not Portland,” Terrence said. “Or which one was the Rose City first: Portland or Pasadena.”
“City nicknames are clearly unregulated,” Raul agreed.
The two men were approaching a square, cinder block building in Seattle, within view of the Space Needle, under sodium amber streetlights. The building, or at least the wall facing the sidewalk on which they stood, was painted with a large green crocodile but otherwise doorless and windowless.
Milling, listless people roamed only generally in the direction of around the far corner. Some of the crowd were smoking, some were holding a drink, some were talking to each other, a few doing all those. It wasn’t a tight-knit crowd Raul and Terrence approached. They were bored, apathetic, cool. They didn’t shout or speak forcefully, their hand gestures were lazy and slow. And they were mostly young, though not all.
Raul, on the other hand, was energetic and smiling, moving quickly enough that his friend had to push to keep up. “Is this the right night? I can’t believe these folks are here to see the same band we are,” he said.
“It’s probably a bigger deal for you because we drove 4 hours to get here,” Terrence said. “And this is the last night they’re playing, in, like, ever.”
“Don’t remind me! I’m just glad I get to see them one last time before they end it all.”
Terrence laughed. “They’re not committing suicide. When did you see them last?”
“Can’t believe you’d ask me that,” Raul said.
“…Oh. Was it…?”
They’d arrived near the door, where a nebulous line of people hovered, some facing the doorman, others talking amongst themselves. Raul craned his neck then looked at his friend, helplessly.
“Excuse me, is this the line to get in?” Terrence asked some random woman.
She blew smoke from one side of her mouth. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Do you know if the main act has gone on yet?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. There was music before.”
Raul rolled his eyes.
The men handed their tickets, printed at home a week ago, to the bouncer, who scanned it and waved them inside. Raul rushed past into a hallway that sharply bent right, right past a man sitting on a tall barstool next to a podium, holding out a rubber stamp, shouting. Terrence, right behind him, tried to get his friend’s attention in the noisy venue interior, but the pre-show music drowned him out.
The stage was back in the corner to their left, the bar against the far wall to their right. The whole room was maybe 40 or 50 feet square, bathed in dim red light. There were two or three booths and tables along the closest wall, but other than that no tables at all; the floor in front of the stage was open and filled with more, milling, mumbling people, the crowd thickening in the direction of the bar.
Raul gasped. His body tensed. The ambient noise seemed to fade away.
20 feet away, among the throng near the bar, but facing half towards the stage: red hair, a few inches shorter than him, the woman had a distinct profile, hooded sultry eyes, a specific demeanor, a tense but expectant attitude.
“They need to stamp your hand!” Terrence bellowed directly into Raul’s ear, breaking his trance.
“What the fuck?”
“Don’t get us kicked out!” Terrence grabbed the other man’s shoulders and pointed him back towards the man on the stool.
“Fine, fine, OK.”
It was Terrence’s turn to scan the crowd, although his attention was on the farthest corner and the sound equipment, and the stage. When Raul returned to him, he said, “This seems like a bad room for acoustics.”
People were on the stage, moving things into position. The crowd noise muted slightly, an anticipation suddenly taking hold. “What do you want to drink?”
“Terrence. I saw someone, just now. I…”
“Drink, motherfucker. Do you want one?” Terrence pointed towards the bar. “I’m buying.”
“Beer me. I’ll be there, closer to the stage.”
Raul moved through the crowd, ill at ease and shaken. He tried not to look at every face, every woman’s face, he passed by.
The band they’d all been waiting to see bounced up onto the stage. Raul was surprised at how tall the lead singer was, how curly his hair was for a white guy, how confident he looked. The rest of the band seemed composed and controlled, practiced, smooth.
“Looks like we got here just in time! Anymore traffic and we’d have missed the opening song!” Terrence once again made his friend jump by shouting into Raul’s ear. Handed him a bottle. “Sorry, that’s all they had. Cheers! We made it!”
“Did we?” But Raul’s voice didn’t carry farther than his own head, as the lead singer suddenly shouted greetings and thanks over the speakers, and the crowd, all at once, was energized in unison. The band laid into the frenetic opening riffs of a deep cut from their second album and the people bounced and shimmied in time.
The first several songs were hard and fast, the lyrics were clever and convoluted, the tone ironic and sincere at the same time. The band were on their A game, and they controlled the crowd with panache. The energy in the room filled the fans up with the power of song.
Alone in the crowd, Raul kept looking around, half present, half wondering. Was she here? Did he imagine her? They’d been on and off again for so long, and had been out of touch for months now, after the final breakup, the one that left the deepest scars.
As the band moved from song to song, they reached a point where they wanted to slow things down. They pulled out a song a bit more contemplative, less driving and more brooding, and as before, the crowd reacted, swaying instead of bouncing or dancing, their upturned faces now lit by the brighter white light picking out the tall, curly haired lead singer, who crooned into the microphone.
And in the light spilling off the band, casting a silver one-sided glow on those watching, near the stage, Raul saw her, again.
She was facing the stage, arms wrapped around her as if in a hug, but somehow seeming separate from the crowd, as Raul felt. She was swaying. She was in quarter profile, oddly, instead of facing directly toward the band, considering she was almost directly in line from Raul to the lead singer.
She had a soft smile on her face, a dream-like cast to her eyes.
Raul stepped forward.
The crowd suddenly resisted his advance, closing like a curtain between her and him.
And just like that, the song was over.
“Hang tight, boys and girls! Just give us a minute to get a drink. We shall return for another set!” The singer shouted, drenched in effort. The spot light shut off; the room went dim red again, then suddenly the house lights went up. The spell broken, the crowd became restless again.
“Wow, that was incredible! Such a great set!” Terrence was laughing, powered up by the music. “You OK?”
“Seeing them was our first date,” Raul said.
“Dude, we’ve been friends forever but I’m not putting out tonight,” Terrence laughed.
“No. No! I mean…” He scanned the crowd. Had he imagined her? “Nevermind.” He clinked his bottle with his friends’, chugged the remaining drink. “Let’s get another beer.”