I'd never really liked Abby. Not since she started seeing John. I mean, I had know him for years and it felt like she stole him from me. Not that I'd ever actually told him how I felt, but it was always there. I mean, I had been there for him before he got his first gig, before he managed to cobble his high school buddies together into a band, through it all.
John met Abby at a show, one of his early ones, back when the band was playing tiny, smoky venues whose patrons largely ignore the acts and where you stuck to the floor in the bathroom, if you were brave enough to venture in. She was his first big fan. Well, after me, but his first big fan who hadn't known him before.
I had originally pegged her as the usual groupie-slut, but that's unfair. For one, the band wasn't big enough to justify groupie-sluts, certainly not ones as attractive as she was, and she did seem to actually want to spend time with John in general, not just at shows.
In the beginning, she was good for him. Even I, looking at the situation through my too green eyes had to admit that. She pushed him to try new things, took him to see sights, made him experience things. That's what she always called it. Experiencing. She never just did anything. For his part, he seemed to really flourish with her. At first. He had more energy, he took more interest in life, he was actually more fun to be around. And his music got better.
He went from garage band that some of us saw potential in to the darling of the Boston underground rock scene. His normal lack of ambition fell away. I'd given up trying to get him to promote his work, or even to put the time in. He'd always give me the spiel about "needing to be inspired." I would just grind my teeth in frustration as my work on posters, websites and hours spent trying to hawk his CDS at indie record stores went ignored or unappreciated.
But when she came into the picture, he changed. He cared. He wrote songs nonstop. He actually talked to record store owners. He stayed after shows and talked to his fans, who finally started to merit the plural version of the noun.
She was subtle. Pushing him and pulling alternately. She could have written a book on carrot and stick motivation, because he never felt manipulated. Even I had a hard time seeing it, and I was looking. I wanted to find a flaw, to see an evil plot behind her actions, but for a long time I couldn't. Even when I did see the way she worked her magic on him, the subtle hints, the changes in attitude that made him want to impress her without her needing to say a word, I couldn't expose her and cast her out. She was jut pushing him the way I wished I could. The times I found her cold and bitchy, cruel beyond what I could ever be to him, the result on his drive was exactly what I had been trying to get for years.
The difference was that my pushing was dismissed as nagging, and made him obstinate. Her merest expression of disappointment was like a cattle prod forcing him to action. And she was wild and fun and uninhibited enough that the positive reinforcement she handed out obviously ensured that he tried for more. I still didn't like her, but I could see she was good for him, and that she was what he needed. I even enjoyed being around him more when she was around. He was more animated, more alive. I shoved my jealousy down and just told myself that he was happy, that's what mattered. I needed to accept that he and I was something that simply wasn't going to happen.
And for two years, that's exactly what I did. Through the band's climb to semi respectability and an actual real, honest to God offer from an albeit small, label. They sounded good, polished and real. He was happy, the rest of the band were content, and I was resigned.
But Abby wasn't happy.
She cooled towards John and the band. Subtly at first, then more noticeably. Her praise was cutting in its mediocrity. A lukewarm compliment from her hurt him more than the most outrageous trashing by any other critic and she knew it. Yet she still did it, even though the band was getting better venues, making money and playing with more technical skill that ever. The heap of CDs in her car never seemed to include his latest work, and progressively less of his older stuff. Every band t-shirt she wore seemed calculated to twist a knife in him at a time when he should be riding high on his success.
Tonight was the last straw. I came by to help him with some updates to the website, and the promotional stuff for the latest shows. I found him sitting in a daze, looking for all the world like he'd been hit with a two by four.
"What's wrong?" I asked. He was white as a ghost.
"She's banging Tom, " he muttered. At least that's what it sounded like.
"Who's whating whom?" I demanded.
He turned to face me, his eyes fixed on some horribly painful sight far, far away. The look you only see in photos of refugees and soldiers who've been to hell. I stepped back. I'd never actually seen that look on someone I knew.
"Abby. My girlfriend. Is banging. Tom. My fucking A & R guy!" the sentence started out as a flat whisper and ended as a tortured roar, full of more rage and pain that I thought could exist.
"Oh my God," I stammered, "I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
He shook his head. He shook himself. "I need to get it out."
I opened my mouth to assure him how willing I was to listen, but he cut me off, standing abruptly and seizing his guitar. "I'm sorry. I just need some time with my guitar. The only one who's never deserted me."
I was hurt. Yes, it was melodramatic, spoken in a moment of pain and anger, but it still cut deep. I had always been there. To listen, to help, to support. Maybe I never sucked his dick behind a stack of amps between sets, but I never deserted him either.
I left the apartment numb, but I didn't stay that way long. A rage flared up in me. How dare she toss him aside like that? For some dirtbag suit? I didn't even remotely understand it. If she was into money and power, why had she dated a musician in the first place?
Well, she wasn't getting away with it. Of that I was certain. What I planned to do I didn't know, but it would be something, dammit.
It took me two days to track down Abby's apartment. During that time, John had been buried in the studio, venting his fury in verse. He angrily dismissed Tom, and delivered a blistering rant to the label that they had to grovel and offer him a lot of control on the next album to keep him from walking out the door. Or tossing an A&R guy out a window. It was a close thing.
Her apartment was in an older building in Allston, off Harvard Ave. The kind rented by college students, artists, musicians, and apparently cheap cheating skanks. I paused at the buzzer before trying it. Why should she let me in? I knew she was home, I could see light in a window and watched her silhouette pass back and forth a few times.
As I stood wondering what to do, my knight in shining armor appeared in the form of a Chinese take out delivery boy. As he mounted the steps, I fumbled in my purse cursing about lost keys. When he was buzzed it, he held the door for me with a polite bow from the neck. I smiled and thanked him. I did look like I belonged in this neighborhood, and didn't seem like a murderer or a burglar, so I don't think his actions were really of any concern to anybody but the most anal, security obsessed paranoid, and that type simply didn't live on this side of town. I walked past the handful of bicycles in the hallway, the marijuana plant on the windowsill and climbed the old curving Victorian stairs with the wide, sweeping bannister, past a mural of angels and demons that some budding Michelangelo had done in tempera paint.
I stopped in front of Abby's door, and took a deep breath. I was about to knock when I heard a voice.
"Come in, Kate."
I pushed the door open and stepped into the apartment. It was a shrine to rock and roll. Posters and band announcements covered the walls, albums, tapes and CDS covered every flat surface in drunkenly leaning stacks. Her collection would be the envy of every music snob who ever said "I only like their early stuff." For instance, she had a copy of London Calling, but not Combat Rock. Born to Run but not Born in the USA. No "Greatest Hits" albums from anybody. Most of it was on vinyl, and most was rock, but there was a smattering of classical music and the odd blues or jazz piece peering out of the rubble. It was strange to see Beethoven and Mozart sandwiched between Dylan and Social Distortion. Abby wandered aimlessly through the kitchen and living room, clutching a juice glass full of Irish Mist like a Titanic survivor clinging to a lifeboat. Her eyes were red and her face streaked with tears. She had just switched off the high end stereo and fixed me with a sad smile.
"I've been expecting you for the last two days," she slurred. "What kept you?"
I glared at her. I had walked in wanting to punch her, but something in her expression stopped me. It was the kindly, wistful look you get from your grandmother before she puts your crayon drawings on the fridge. The eyes she turned on me were deep and filled with a wisdom far beyond her age. They looked into my soul, weighed what they found and beamed at me in a nonjudgmental, almost patronizing benediction.
It's hard to slam a fist into an expression like that.
"What the hell did you do to John?" I lurched on to my rant, not to be deterred.
She looked away for a moment. A new tear ran down her cheek. She raised her glass and took a long pull. "What he needed me to," she whispered.
That wasn't what I expected. "He needed you to fuck his A & R guy?" I demanded.
She took another big drink, still staring at the wall that housed her record collection. It was the most vinyl I'd seen in one place since ManRay closed. When she spoke, her voice was so soft I almost missed it. "Yes. He did."
I snorted in what I hoped was a derisive manner.
Her meandering path took her into the spartan kitchen. She found a bottle and topped off her glass before tacking toward the living room, listing markedly to starboard. I wonder how much she'd had. I'd seen her put away beer and the occasional shot, but I'd never seen anybody swill liqueur by the cupful like this.
"Look," she began, gesturing vaguely with the glass, "I'm not really supposed to tell you this, and you won't believe me at first, but I think you deserve to know. And I'm really, really drunk. So I'm gonna break some rules.
"I'm John's Muse."
"Maybe you were until--"
"I am. And for the next few weeks I shall continue to be," she turned her tear streaked face to me, "I hated hurting him. But he needed me to."
"I don't know what kind of psycho kick you're on, but that makes no sense. Maybe the booze has you rattled. Did Tom pressure you with John's career?"
She shook her head slowly.
"Look," she began, "I'mma explain it slowly. One piece at a time." She drew herself up to her full five foot one, summoning her dignity, holding her vat of amber liquor like a scepter. She looked for all the world like an Imperial Princess on a bender.
"I am far older than you could know. I am one of nine sisters, an my given name is Euterpe."
"What the hell is that? Lebanese?"
"Greek. Our father was Zeus. For aeons, it has been our task to inspire artists."
Well, I wasn't convinced, but she sure seemed to believe what she was saying.
She smiled through her tears, "I knew you wouldn't believe it. I mean, who would. Look, we see potential. And when we do, we nurture that. We fan the flames of raw talent until it becomes Art."
She put such reverence into the word that I actually heard the capital letter.
"So you're saying you made John what he is?"
"Think. Before he met me he was talented. He had potential. God did he have potential. But it was dormant. I coaxed it out of him. Without my guidance, he'd be pumping gas, playing in his garage, maybe, if he was really lucky. More likely, he'd have pawned his guitar and a dead end job would be grinding his soul to a dull nub."
I started to make a cutting retort, but I realized that she might have a point. It was only after he met her that he applied himself. I'd tried to get him to for years, but, the way he'd been going, the future she outlined wasn't out of the question.
"So you use your sexual wiles on poor artists and writers so they'll make something of themselves?"
"Writers?" she snorted, "Please. Bunch of drunken egomaniacs who lacked the discipline for piano lessons. I only work with musicians."
"So you're discriminating in your slutting around?" I was getting angry now. This fairy tale stuff was pushing my buttons. The grains of truth in what she had to say were like salt in the wounds.
She looked at me without a trace of anger. Somehow that made it worse.
"Artists need inspiration. One of the strongest inspirations, especially for musicians, is sex. So, yes, I do slut around' with musicians, if that is what they need to drive them to create masterpieces.
"Sex is part of it, almost always," she went on, "but most need more. John needed to be thrown into life at the deep end. He was too complacent. He only became great when he learned to live. You can't put emotion into a song when you haven't tasted it, savored it, let it run down you chin and licked the last drops from your fingers. Then, you can set it to music."
"Look, I admit that he matured as a musician after he met you, but you're delusional," I replied "You're a twenty something groupie in Allston. You're fun and pretty, but you aren't Helen of Troy."
"I am every woman. I am what every artist needs." she said in perfect seriousness. What she needed right then was an ambulance and a trip to the Bournewood Mental Hospital.
Sensing my skepticism, she ran a hand though her hair and shook her head.
My jaw dropped. Her dark hair and olive skin were gone, and in their place was a fair face framed by the most amazing blonde mane I'd ever seen. Not bottle blonde, but rich shades varying from almost white to honey to shining gold. The dark eyes were deep blue now, but held the same wisdom. She was at least three inches taller and her shirt now stretched tight over a bust increased two cup sizes.
"Does this help you believe?" her voice was deeper, richer, and carried a trace of accent I couldn't identify.
I nodded, she sighed and returned to her previous form.
"I have been many women through time. I spent the 18th century in Vienna, and the fifties in Detroit, I began the sixties in London, and ended them in San Francisco. I know every club in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and yes, Greater Boston.
"I am Euterpe. My domain is music."
I digested this. Clearly, something out of my experience was happening. I was still angry, still confused and still didn't want to believe it.
"Why?" was all I could come up with. "Why leave him now? Is the thrill ride over?" I packed as much bitterness into my question as I could.
"Do you think I like to hurt people?" she asked, "it's what he needed. It was the push. Since he signed, he's lost his edge."
"The band is better than ever," I retorted angrily.
"No," she replied calmly, "They're more polished. That's not better. The last album had about as much emotional punch as Phil Collins." She took a deep breath and continued, "And Tom was pushing him to blander, more commercial work. Garbage. Cheap, trite, bland garbage. Now, I've saved him from that. He'll never work with that jackal again, he'll demand more control, and the pain will come out in better music. True music. From the soul."
"You'd hurt him for music?" I demanded angrily.
She speared me with a gaze of pure steel."I've watched great artists destroy themselves, and I've helped them do it, because they needed it for their art. My job is inspiration. Some people needed sex, some drink or drugs or danger. Some couldn't produce when they were happy. They needed heartbreak to fuel their genius.
"Pain passes. Great works remain. The world is a better place for the suffering of a gifted few."
I wanted to argue, to dispute such a ridiculous claim, but the look in her eyes stopped me. Was she right? Would the world be a better place if Mozart had lived a long happy life producing mediocre music that no one could recall? If Jimi Hendrix or Charley Parker were still alive, pruning the shrubs in some suburb remembering their unremarkable dabbling in music? If Cobain had been happy and well adjusted, would Grunge have ever taken off or would bad hairmetal still be dominating the airwaves?
I couldn't help but lash out against the pain she caused, despite the obvious benefit, "So you manipulate men to build this art? Does that get you off?"
"It's not just men, sweetie," she smirked, "how do you think Melissa Etheridge writes such amazing songs about unrequited love? Don't look so surprised." She paused for a swig of booze and I suspect, dramatic effect, "Interesting point. Regardless of sex, skill with a guitar directly correlates to skill at cunnilingus. I suspect the same applies to synthesizer pop and fellatio, but that was never my scene."
"How can you do this? What do you get from it?"
"Oh, it's not for the sex or the presents or the status of being on the arm of some star. It's knowing that a song was written for you. There's no thrill to compare to that. Come To My Window does things to me that no lover's touch ever could. I can't hear Born to Run or Thunder Road without my legs starting to shake. I've been immortalized in song as Wendy, Mary, Peggy Sue, and Layla."
"Not Rosanna?" I asked.
For the first time, through all the insults I had flung her way, I saw her angry. "Toto?" she spat the word through clenched teeth. If looks could kill, I'd have dropped on the spot. "What the hell do you think I am?"
Well, we both knew the answer to that, but apparently she had standards.
Her anger was short lived. She walked unsteadily back to the kitchen, retrieved another glass and sloshed a reasonable amount of spirit into it before extending it toward me. "Here. You're gonna need this."
I accepted the glass hesitantly and took a sip.
She leaned against the kitchen counter to stop the sway she had acquired somewhere over the last six ounces. "I have to apologize to you. I know I hurt him, and I hurt you. If I'd stayed away, you two would be together. Wait, let me finish. I couldn't let that happen. Not at that moment. I told you we Muses can see potential. I saw his, and I saw yours. We also see need. For where he was, for as mature as he was, or wasn't as the case may be, you couldn't give him what he needed. You weren't wild enough and you weren't cruel enough," she almost sobbed, but caught herself, " it's not about giving him what he wants, it's about giving him what he needs.
"I did what I had to do to get him to where he is, and now to get him out of this rut. I had to burn bridges to do it. I can't ever go back. He's your project now.
"But here's what I left you." She walked to the stereo
"What do you mean?"
"This is the rough cut of what he's been working on. I got a copy. I know people"
She pushed a button on the stereo.
The song that played was maybe a bit rough. Just a bit, but the lyrics were poetry, and the pain just poured out of the speakers.
I was speechless. That was the best he'd ever sounded. Better than I ever imagined he could.
She fixed me with that ageless gaze though red rimmed eyes, her face a mask of pride and sorrow.
When the song finished, she said "That. That is what he's capable of. Make sure he remembers that."
I could only nod dumbly.
She stood, wobbling a bit.
"I'm going to bed. You can let yourself out. Do your best with him."
I nodded again.
"There are rewards you know," she smirked, "He's a very good guitarist."
* * *
Six months later, John and I were sharing a table in the Middle East, taking in a new act. She was a folk rock, acoustic solo act. Very soulful, competent musician. I had the feeling that she could go places.
As we listened, I noticed a curvy little blonde with a short spiked haircut in a tight Indigo Girls t-shirt and low rider jeans, a tribal tattoo displayed on the swath of bare back between them, dancing in front of the stage. Her eyes were fixed on the singer as she swayed in time to the music, her sinuous movements speaking volumes of lascivious promise.
While I'd never met the girl, there was something oddly familiar about her.
"You know," I told John, "I think this girl's going places."
"Really?" he asked, "I suppose she has some potential."
"All she needs is the right inspiration."
"You think she'll find it?"
"Somehow I do," I replied, "And, you know, she plays a pretty good guitar."
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