When you turned eighteen, you and Johnny sent a CD to L.A. All 900 people in your town wished you luck, even Dad, who had helped you get recording time at his studio. You used the same amount of money it would’ve cost to apply to college to get postage and pay for shipping. Then you waited. You’d had a talk with your dad years ago about getting yourself away from all the trade stuff, but it was during those eight weeks of waiting you wanted more than anything to get back in. You kept your word, if only because you knew there was only so much you could promise your dad, and this, at least, was doable.
But then you got a call. Someone liked your sound, especially the harmonica, and wanted you to go see him in California. Through Johnny’s laughter you could see in his eyes he was grateful to you. To you, and your insistence that he should learn to play, those many years ago.
You told Dad the name of the label, and he said it was good news. At one point, while you were packing up with Johnny, he tried to make a speech about how your mom would probably be proud of you, but you stopped him. You put a hand on his shoulder and reminded him who had the musical genes in the family, anyway. You knew he wouldn’t have meant what he was going to say, anyway. Maybe he felt that’s what dads should say, but you both knew that, while your mother’s leaving had left you both cracked, it had also forced you to grow stronger, mend and bind together at the broken places. His glassy eyes put a lump in your throat as you closed the trunk of the car.
You don’t remember the drive so much as arriving. You and Johnny looked up at the big, wrought iron gate in front of Julian Temple’s mansion, your heart in your throat. Everything was white, or trimmed green, or accented gold. Johnny patted your shoulder a few times before you buzzed yourselves in.
“There are our boys!” Julian Temple said as you walked through a grand archway. He was wearing a V-neck sweater and khaki pants pressed to a crease, no shoes, and round, pink sunglasses. You thought he was being funny at first. He wasn’t.
“Noah Clarke, sir,” you said, shaking his hand. He grasped it firmly, using both of his hands to cover yours. Johnny introduced himself, too, and you were led into a room as big as your entire house. A small dog was sitting on a cushion on a couch, and Temple picked it up and offered the couch to you.
“We’re not really sure how this goes, Mr. Temple…” Johnny began.
“Oh, Johnny, never call me that again,” Temple laughed and stroked his dog. “Julian, please.”
“Alright, Julian,” you said, feeling increasingly out of place. “You liked our CD.”
“Oh yes,” Temple said, grinning. “And you know, I was going to haggle out some numbers and details after I got a look at you, but you know what? You’ve got faces that will rake in the fans from everywhere. Trust me, I know these things.”
Temple produced a stack of contracts offered one to you and one to Johnny.
“So, let’s talk business, yes?”
Temple talked you into a deal with his label that very day. You would’ve signed almost anything, if you were being honest. Here was an opportunity to play the music that was inside of you, and get paid for it. The dream, but also a means to an end. Whatever came with it, those would just be bonuses.
Your dad screamed in excitement when you told him, and you could feel the warmth of his smile through the phone. You and Johnny had already started to look for places to live, but it was disorienting to walk the streets of L.A., with people bumping into you as they walked, eyes shaded by sunglasses and not greeting you with a smile or even a nod, so unlike where you grew up. You told Dad you’d be back home for a visit in no time.
But you weren’t home in no time. In fact, after the first six months, you stopped calling your dad that often. So busy, sorry!! And you forgot about home. At first, the clubs and restaurants were too crowded, but not for long – Temple’s name carried weight, and there was always someone to lift the rope and let you in. It felt like being a trader, but on a bigger scale. Sometimes it scared you, how easily you could cut corners and how many people seemed to suddenly be on your side. You often felt distanced from yourself, and concerned that these strings attached to making music would eventually come back and ask for something you weren’t ready to give. But then someone would hand you another VIP pass and you’d push the worries away.
By the time you were twenty, you had a Best-Selling Album, and you had styled your hair so many ways you had lost count. You tried sending money to your dad in letters, but he just returned them. You had earned it, so you should keep it. You kept telling him you would visit, Soon, I promise. Johnny had dated and dumped more girls than were in your entire town. And all your friends from back home were writing to you from jail.
You got a lot of mail, actually. From people you didn’t even know, from all over. Asking for favors, autographs, tour dates, love. Some just professing how much your music spoke to them. Those were the best ones. You liked how much people seemed to know you, really know you, and know your music. Johnny even showed you your own personal Wikipedia page on his phone. But the pictures there made you frown. You didn’t really recognize yourself. And the discography was much shorter when you looked at it in print like that. You told Johnny your work wasn’t finished – that it wasn’t even your best. He laughed and fished out more bills than what was necessary to pay for your meal, as if that was proof enough.
Album Two needed to be written, and you had started to frequent a little coffee shop to write every day. So far, you were getting into parties and sometimes got to meet other artists you admired. You even heard your songs playing from café speakers when you were lucky to walk by at the right time. But you had yet to experienced fame the way the paparazzi presented it to you. You were just drinking coffee – alone, on a Sunday, wearing sunglasses and sneakers. Maybe your low-profile actually drew them to you, you weren’t sure. But when a handful of men with lenses for faces followed you down the block, it was the start of a long-lived hatred of the public eye.
The hatred built when your picture appeared in a magazine, which appeared in grocery stores across the country, which made someone appear on your doorstep. You hadn’t reached the level where your address was blacklisted, so you’re sure she was able to find you easily. Maybe she still had Johnny’s number, and he told her where to find you.
“Hi Noah,” she said when you opened the door.
Her standing there, on your doorstep, brought your small town life crashing over you like a crescendo. Her face had drawn in on itself, lines tracing the choices she’d made since she left nine years before, skin still smooth but aged. Photographers moved like insects on the street, so you had no choice but to invite her in.
She wanted to say sorry. She felt shame. She was so proud to have seen your picture, your music, your fame in that magazine. Her hands shook as she said a deep determination had moved her to find you, to meet with you and tell you how she messed up, how she wanted another chance.