By M. Erickson
It’s funny how certain songs can define an era in your life. The chords make their way from the speakers to your ears then right on in to your heart. In high school, the movie Almost Famous was released, and with it a whole new chance to fall in love with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” It’s a great sing-a-long song, you almost can’t help but join in with the chorus: Hold me closer tiny dancerrrrr, count the headlights on the highway… My friends and I sang it all the time, especially on long road trips—my friend Terry would always do this little dance with his hands to the part tiny dancer in my hand. One hand would be the stage, the other hand the dancer, two fingers for the legs, which he’d twirl around to the beat. We all loved it.
Terry was our group’s musician. We were big on camping back then, the kind that involved no parents, lots of booze, and late night parties around the campfire. We were on our own, experiencing life as we created it. We’d lie in the sun or play in the ocean all day, play two hand touch football in the early evenings, and all gather together for the sunsets. It’s funny how, standing there buzzing with crazy teenager hormones, we all seemed to enjoy those quiet moments when the sun met the ocean, when fiery red bled into cool blue. As the nights wound down, Terry would break out his guitar and we’d all sing along to the songs he played around the campfire. But don’t be confused, we weren’t a Kumbaya bunch; we sang the hits of Sublime with a little Staind thrown in when we were feeling especially emo.
Graduation came, and the real world caught up with us. Everyone had different plans: some got jobs; Sarah and I were moving away to attend four-year universities; Kelly and Sophia were staying nearby for college; and some, like Terry, didn’t know what to do with themselves.
It was sad to say goodbye and leave, but I was excited to start a new life in the Bay Area. But when I got up to Berkeley I was startled by how close everything was. Buildings didn’t have space between, pressed up against each other like a barricade. When I talked to anyone from back home, I told them how great everything was, and how much fun I was having. In reality, I was overwhelmed, feeling claustrophobic, dropping classes. By the end of my first semester, I earned credit in only one class: a two unit volunteer course where I tutored elementary school students.
I went back home for Christmas break, excited to see all my old friends and to get back to normal. Of course, it wasn’t normal anymore. We had all changed over those four short months, and our differences began to feel more pronounced than our similarities. One night we all got together at my mom’s place—though it wasn’t my house anymore. She had moved while I was away at college to a tiny one bedroom apartment near the community college. I no longer had a bedroom; the stuff I had left behind was boxed up and out in a storage space above her parking stall. We sat around in a That 70’s Show-esque circle smoking a joint inside the house, as my mom didn’t want the neighbors to smell it. She liked to say “at least you aren’t a drunk.” Apparently a stoner is better in her book.
Everything was going smoothly, and I began to feel more at ease with my old friends—we were the group I belonged to. Then Terry dropped a bomb on us, and everything fell apart. He had joined the Marines. I was shocked. It had only been 3 months since 9/11 and George Bush was working to get those terrorists, “No matter what it takes.” We tried to talk him out of it. The government would use him as fodder, we said, as a means to go after the oil they so desperately wanted. He had other options: he could get a scholarship and go back to school; he could get a good job and do something, anything, other than fight in a war we didn’t believe in.
We should have said we were scared. Scared we would lose him, that even if he made it through, he wouldn’t ever be the same again. But we couldn’t say those things. Maybe they were too honest and direct. Maybe no one wanted to admit the reality of the war, or the price we were sure he would pay.
He didn’t listen. He was offended. His dad had been a Marine—there was honor in protecting your country. So when it was time to hug and say goodbye, I squeezed him extra tight. I felt I had already lost him. Where was our sing-a-long, I wondered, our moment to all sing the words and belong to something?
I heard things over the years. First, he was in Japan, doing overseas duty; he felt weird as a tall white guy in a country of short Asians. Then he was being shipped out to Iraq, as a radio operator for patrolling units.
It made me sad to think of him, alone in a sea of small polite Asian people, without a friend back home to support his decision. It worried me to think of my friend heading into warzone neighborhoods. I shouldn’t have jumped all over him; we shouldn’t have parted on a sour note.
I was too busy in my new life to track him down. I had dropped out of Berkeley, worked whatever job I could find. It felt wasteful to borrow money every year to end up with a bullshit degree in communications or art history. Eventually I found myself in San Francisco, a secretary in an escrow office. Completely entry level. I didn’t even know what escrow was (escrow: the neutral third party in real estate transactions, handling all paperwork and money to assure everyone gets paid properly), but I worked my way up over the years from receptionist to assistant to officer, even serving as an interim manager for a while. It’s the type of business where you take your clients out to nice restaurant/bars and pretend to be their friend. Sometimes out with clients, I’d hear an old campfire song and think of Terry. If I was drunk enough, I’d tell my phony work friends about him, about how he was in the war. Sometimes they’d tell me about someone they knew who had served or was serving and we would fall into an awkward silence, because there was nothing to say. They didn’t really care about Terry and I didn’t really care about who they knew, we just wanted our friends/family to be safe.
As the market took a turn for the worse and real estate came to a standstill, I approached my county manager and volunteered for the next round of lay-offs. The nine to five life was not for me—at least, not for escrow. I took a two week vacation with my best friend Sarah, touring Yosemite, the Redwood Groves, and the secluded Lost Coast. Why not take the plunge, I thought, get a degree, pursue a life in publishing? It was time. School was knocking on my door. Unemployment Insurance could foot the bill.
After an inspiring English class, I accepted my fate. I wanted to be a writer. I earned an Associate’s Degree in community college, set my sights on a BA at a four-year school, and found myself with time to kill between my last semester in Berkeley and the move to my new university in Alaska. So I packed up my little Sentra and struck out on the 5 South back home.
I met up with Kelly one night for drinks; she told me Terry was back in town. I hadn’t heard much after he was sent to Iraq. I was so excited—he wasn’t dead! “How’s he doing?” I asked her. She just raised an eyebrow and said, “You should call him.”
We made plans to hang out as his house one night. He’d gotten bigger, and of course we were older, but it felt the same. We hung out in his garage where he had a band set up with guitars, microphones, and even drums. He taught me a few basic beats on the drums and we had a little sing-a-long, with him on guitar and vocals. He’d gotten really good. I was amazed to see how fast his fingers could move.
A few beers in, I finally gathered the courage to ask him about the war. I was expecting horrible stories, and I’d been bracing to hear them, but he told me about the friends he made and the wild places he’d been, the beautiful women he slept with and the exotic food he ate. After he got back from Iraq, most of his platoon, himself included, spent a year drinking and crying. The hardest thing to adjust to, he said, was that no one got his jokes anymore—too crude, too vulgar for civilian ears. He felt small and alone when no one laughed.
Summer passed and I headed up to Alaska, but I kept in better touch with my old friends this time. The old crew was reconnecting, and we were all doing our part to keep it going. I returned to California for Christmas with a light heart, because I knew I had good friends waiting. We all got together for dinner at an old favorite, then headed back to Sarah’s mom’s house. It felt like old times. Terry brought out his guitar and we all sang Sublime’s greatest hits. He showed off for a while, and as the night wound down he played an original song he’d written, something mournful and slow. His deep voice filled the night air. I was amazed at his talent, and after he finished we all clapped and cheered. We joked how Terry should quit school, even if he just went back and was serious about it now, and become a rock star. “You know, I’ve never played at a venue before,” he said.
“You should do the open mike night at the bar where my boyfriend works,” Kelly said.
He waved us off.
“No, you should do it,” someone said.
“Terry, you’re amazing. You should do it,” I said.
“Fine,” he said, “but you all have to be there to watch.”
We all showed up, and his dad even came with a camcorder. Some of his new friends showed up too and even a few of our old ones we hadn’t seen in years (including my high school boyfriend, whom I am apparently still not over). He played songs everyone in the bar knew and loved, songs that everyone could sing along to. He seemed so natural up on stage in front of friends and strangers, doing his thing. I was proud to be there, proud to be a part of such a great moment in my good friend’s life.
After the bar closed, Terry, Sarah, and I headed back to his place to keep the party going. We drank beer and smoked, reminiscing about the crazy stuff we used to get into. We YouTubed all the old campfire songs and sang them on his balcony at the tops of our lungs. Then I sparked a joint and we all calmed down a bit. We sat cross-legged around Terry’s bedroom floor, talking about future plans. In mid conversation Sarah jumped up and said, “We forgot one!” Terry and I looked at each other, a bit confused, as she typed something into the computer. She clicked a button and familiar notes floated through the speakers. I smiled and began singing along, bumping Terry’s shoulder with my shoulder in time to the beat. Ballerina, you must have seen her, dancing in the sand. Now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand. Sarah looked over at Terry and said, “Hey! You didn’t do the tiny dancer.” He looked confused and asked what she was talking about.
“Remember, Terry?” I did my bad impersonation of the move. “C’mon, do it.” He shook his head, still not getting it. Sarah and I looked at each other, and she said, “I guess that was the old Terry.” I nodded. We had come to it, finally.
“You mean the Terry before the war?” he asked quietly.
Can a song ever mean one thing? Bernie Taupin, who wrote Tiny Dancer, says it’s about the women of California in the 70’s: “free spirits… very ethereal…” Elton John, on the other hand, says it’s about Taupin’s then girlfriend—a love song. In the movie Almost Famous it’s played during a scene where the band is angry and frustrated with each other, but reconnects through this song. And when I used to sing along to it I would feel hopeful and light and connected. But now, when it comes on unexpectedly in the car or maybe when I’m out with friends, I feel a constricting of my heart, like hands squeezing. I imagine Terry standing alone in a world of people who will never get his jokes. And the truth is, I’m not sure I’d want to.