It’s kind of fitting that my husband, who is cool and nice and sweet and generally seems to like me most of the time, was the one to wake me up just now and tell me about the sad passing of B.B. King, blues pioneer, showman, diabetes awareness spokesman and namesake of a chain that sells the world’s best fried pickles. And that’s because although I’ll always remember him as all those things, he will also always be the guy who’s concert marked the bittersweet coda of the worst relationship I ever had.
I will not bore you with the details – let’s just say that I was younger, dumber and desperate to mean something to someone in a guy-girl situation, and this man was wrong, wrong, wrong for me, like big blinding billboard so bright you can’t sleep at night WRONG WRONG WRONG. But he liked me OK, and so that was close enough. Until it wasn’t.
There is a line from a Patti Griffin song that goes “Ain’t no talking to this man, he’s been trying to tell me so,” and indeed he did all the time. He used to break up with me all the time, sometimes to be cruel but mostly because he knew something I couldn’t see, that we were WRONG WRONG WRONG and toxic and incompatible and blech. This is the guy who was so wrong for me that one of my best friends used to make me take him to dinner every time I got back to together with that guy because “When you get sick of paying for my food you will stop going back to that guy.”
So after a lot of really gross breakups over maybe 8 months, dotted with too few oasis-like moments of happiness, or whatever fake carbon copy of happiness I’d settled for, it finally ended, to the and delight and relief of my friends, my daddy and my wallet, because I was getting sick of buying that one buddy dinner all the time. I think it started with him offering to help me move and not showing up, and then offering to come over for dinner that night and me sitting on the steps with the cordless (yes, a landline!) for an hour watching the car lights that weren’t his pass by until I knew I was just a cliche from an ’80s movie and went inside. Fortunately, I did not then sit in the freezing cold in my furniture-less living room in front of a giant and unexplained painting of Billy Idol’s head, because that would be weird.
And then I went to his apartment and begged him to talk to me and he wouldn’t even walk me to the door and I said “You’d walk a hooker to the door if only to make sure she didn’t steal anything, so I’m never coming back” and he was like “Don’t believe it,” and I was like “If I ever start to I will remember this moment you made me feel like less than a hooker and stop myself” and then Carly Simon started singing about running rivers and the new Jerusalem in my head and that was that.
That was, until I don’t know how long later…a couple months maybe…of judiciously avoiding each other at work, and he came over to my desk and said “Streeter, you wanna go see B.B. King with me?” And it was clear for both of us that this was not a date – I got the feeling I was his last resort, like he bought them for someone else and he couldn’t find anyone else to go. The show was in Philadelphia, about two hours away and I had a moment of panic – this was a person who made me feel as low as anyone ever has, with my permission, and I was a crazy psycho toxic person to him as well, and what would we talk about?
But then I thought about being an adult, and I remember looking at him across the newsroom and trying to conjure any attraction, any gasp of that craziness that used to make me throw all common sense and self-preservation to the winds, and…nothing. Maybe this is what being grown-up looked liked. I felt I had put it all behind me, but going to this show with him and getting through it without incident would be a nice coda. So I said yes, sure, and it was really casual, and we were both overly emphatic on the platonic nature of the event. It was so long ago I can’t remember a lot of it, but I know we had dinner, and there was a conversation in the car – I think sitting outside the restaurant? – in which somebody said “So we’re cool, right?” and the other one said “Yes” and there were apologies and nods and some brief wave of relief and the understanding that it would not be quite so weird for the rest of the evening, because we still had a whole concert and a ride home to get through.
The show was great, but long. I tend to fall asleep around 9, no matter what’s going on – friends call me Narcoleslie – and after Bobby “Blue” Bland’s set, and then BB, I remember nodding off, and the guy elbowing me during “The Thrill Is Gone” and saying “You are missing this and you better wake up.” So many years later, it seems to have been that he knew this was our final thing, and he had taken a gamble that we could do this as adults and not be insane and I was ruining the closure by falling asleep. I remember how impressed I was with King, because at that point he was already elderly, sitting down a lot. But he talked, and he laughed, and when he held Lucille and closed his eyes and wailed, I felt a jolt of genius and inspiration that kept me awake.
Until the ride home, where I nodded off probably immediately after the seat belt clicked. I remember the guy nudging me awake, parked across from my house, the one whose steps he’d left me sitting on like an idiot, and saying, jokingly but quite emphatically, “Alright, get out,” because he wanted to make sure that this was not our old dance, that we were not gonna kiss or hug or have some sort of anything that was anything other than a goodbye. The girly inth of me that watches too many movies was, even then, a little taken aback because that girly part likes being kissed goodnight, but the other parts of me wrestled the girly part to the ground and slapped her around and bound her in the corner until we could all get out of the car.
That was the last time we did anything just the two of us – months later we were part of a group that went to see a band in Baltimore, an hour away, and we talked about the girl he’d fallen in love with across the country, who he moved away to marry, and I talked about whatever loser I was losering with at the moment. And it was even more final, but more relaxed, and happy and goofy and something like friendship. It was a huge relief to me, a huge sigh, a thing to put behind me, which is weird because I didn’t usually deal with things that well.
That was it. But it wouldn’t have happened without B.B. King. Thanks for helping me act like a grown-up.