Monday, August 22, 2016

The Other Half of the Night

The Summit, c. 1994. Photograph by Gemini7. Released to Public Domain.

Since publishing the story about the Who concert in November 1975, I've felt remiss in not telling the other half of the story, which is not about rock but about people and the scary world in which we live. So here is the other darker side of that night.
In 1975 I shared an apartment in Austin with a girl named Skyla. In the early fall I found out that The Who would be playing at the Summit, a basketball arena in Houston that sometimes held concerts. Several weeks before the concert, the tickets went on sale. I went to Houston where I bought as many tickets as I could afford with the certainty that I could scalp them. It was for The Who, after all.
Skyla went with me to meet one guy who bought tickets for himself and his roommate. After that, she talked endlessly about this guy, how cute he was, and how she couldn't wait to sit with him during the concert. Every mention of this guy put a nail in my heart. Even if Skyla was as enamored of this guy as she appeared to be, why she didn't keep this to herself is a mystery to me. She and I were not just roommates but a cohabiting couple with full and supposedly enduring intentions. Yes, it could have been just to make me jealous, but there was something off about her—as a friend once told me, it's as if she is from another planet—that better explains Skyla's utter lack of discretion in this and other matters.
Skyla's overt crush on my ticket buyer echoed in her missing a few mental faculties that should have composed discretion and common sense, among other things. The problem rested with her mother, Henrika. Nobody knew about Asperger's back then, and in retrospect I don't think it was Asperger's now, but perhaps something related to it. It's more like the movie Shine in which Peter Helfgott, who was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, exacts perfect virtuosity at the piano from his son David. David eventually wins a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where the pressures finally dissolved him into a trembling, drooling ball of protoplasm during a performance of "Rach 3," as they called it—Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. Don't let that put you off an excellent film, though: the father's tyranny (denied by the real-life family, by the way) and the pressures of the College are back story. The movie is about David Helfgott's amazing recovery that made him into his own autonomous being rather than the puppet and property of his father. And yes, it is a true story to the extent that Hollywood can tell a story truly.

Henrika was a victim of the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. She wasn't in a concentration camp, so her bitter obsession wasn't as strong as Peter Helfgott's, but it was bad enough. Her favorite story is about how the German's took all the food for themselves and left the Dutch to eat tulip bulbs. There lies some of that famous and cruel Nazi irony because the Dutch empire had in part been built out of tulips—complete with the tulip bubble, when the price of tulip bulbs swelled to well beyond their worth, and when their value collapsed, many people lost their fortunes. Instead of Marie-Antoinette's "Let them eat cake!" we have a Germanic "Let them eat bulbs!" I also wondered if one inherits irony from one's oppressors: Henrika gave Skyla the middle name, Antoinette.

Henrika worked her kids hard with chores, which are not damaging in themselves, though it must have felt like they were being punished every waking moment. Many overworked kids come of age knowing the value of work and money and do well for themselves, but their parents also let their children taste of the world in small, carefully supervised, graduated doses until the kids earn the trust to fly solo. License for solo flight involves not only knowing how to fly but knowing where to fly, what situations to avoid, and what should be done if I nevertheless find myself in peril or with folks I should avoid. This is why children's stories often feature characters like Fagin in Oliver Twist or the Fox and the Cat in Pinocchio—the fear associated with fictional con men is the tuition for learning to avoid them later when they are real.

Henrika, like the mother in Pink Floyd's The Wall, would never let Skyla or her little brother and sister fly. Skyla learned to rely upon books to give her what she could not glean from experience, so she was a little like Data, who mastered subjects without the human dimension but with stashes of information on Star Trek: the New Generationhence my friend's saying Skyla was from another planet. Though Skyla felt that books gave her an equivalency to real-life experience, what she learned was no more equivalent to doing something than a GED is equivalent to a high school diploma. In both experience and education, a great part of the benefits come through acculturation that comes in the sweetness of being there over time. For example—and this isn't rocket science; I have no proof—but I'm certain that fully half of what one gains from a college education comes through osmosis, from physically being on a campus, from being around other educated people, from internalizing the mannerisms, from witnessing the external signs of internal thought processes. I do not get that sweetness during a year of cramming for a GED test, nor do I get it from reading a book about what it's like to know people professionally, socially, or sexually.
* * *
On Thursday, the 20th of November, we drive to Houston to see the concert. My idea for scalping tickets has gone totally astray—I haven't even broke even. In the broad plaza between the Summit and its parking garage, I trade my remaining tickets to another scalper for a couple of seats in the twelfth row, but Skyla doesn't want to sit there. Despite being with me, she wants to sit where our original tickets placed us so she can be with the cute guy. She has the old ticket in her pocket, and when I give her the new ticket—the twelfth-row ticket for a seat next to me—she tears it up. That pisses me off a bit, so the air between us is chilly.
I say, "Fine, meet me back at the car at the end of the show."
It was The Who's first show of the tour. They were fresh, but a little green. This is still in the days of electrical cords, and  Roger Daltry, whose voice is in top form, keeps dropping the microphone as he tries to do his showmanship trick of swinging the microphone through the air then yanking the cord so that it lands in his hand. Yet the performances are so excellent, so iconically The Who, that nobody minds the occasional thump of a missed mic. Pete Townsend explains that he has pre-programmed his synthesizer for the next number, and no one cares because the guitar is the thing, especially in Townsend's hands, and the next song is "We Won't Get Fooled Again," played out to its full fourteen minutes of glory with Townsend's hot riffs and Daltry's great rock-and-roll screams. My god, that song was worth the price of admission alone.
When the show ends, I go to the car and Skyla's not there. I look around for her. I check other levels of the parking garage, but she is nowhere to be found. I waited by the car. I walked some more. She is nowhere to be found.
Finally, at dawn, several hours beyond the end of the concert, I drive to Henrika's house. When I knock at the door, it swings open and out comes Skyla's sister, ready for school, backed by her mother who is seeing her off. Except, wait, I'm not the ride for school.
Henrika loathes me, so, at 20, I loathe her back (I wonder now how it would have been if I had just hugged her and called her mom and been nice to her: could I have ever thawed that wall of ice around her). She tolerates me in her house because I am, after all, looking for her missing daughter. She asks me to tell her the story several times, and I oblige her.
Then it occurs to me that I should call home.
"Hello," Skyla says.
"You're home."
"Yeah," she says listlessly.
"Well, I waited by the car for you until dawn. I walked around looking for you."
"I couldn't find the car. I thought you left."
"No, I wouldn't do that…."
"So I hitched a ride home."
"Let me talk to her," her mother says.
"I got raped."
"Oh…" I say, totally caught off guard. I have no idea what to say. "Really?"
"Yeah."
"Your mother wants to talk to you."
"You're at my mother's?"
"I didn't know where else to look for you. Anyway do you want to talk to her?"
"No." Skyla wasn't much fonder of her mother than I was. It had been a hard childhood.
"She doesn't want to talk to you," I tell Skyla's mother. "I'll be there in a few hours."
"OK." We both hang up.
She didn't remember where the car was, and these are the days before cell phones. She assumed I had abandoned her, so she decides she will hitch back to Austin. The possibility of calling her mother and asking for a ride never occurred to her. So she's a nineteen-year-old girl with high cheekbones highlighting a pretty face, a fine, taut figure, and a pathological naïveté because of an overprotective upbringing, hitching a ride at an onramp to a Houston freeway. Her rapist was the first ride to come along.


* * *
She should have stayed with me. Houston is a tough town too. Imagine, a woman-child, with all the accouterments of womanhood and all the naivete of a child, standing on the entrance ramp of a freeway like Sissy Hankshaw with her thumb out. As if rape is not bad enough, I think she is lucky not to have been murdered and buried in the Piney Woods.
I remember one time how I remarked about the chances she took, and she was dismissive about the risk of being raped. She said, "Well, I haven't been raped yet," as if that were proof it wouldn't happen. In Greek tragedy it's hubris that the gods punish. Excessive pride or overconfidence.
One night several months later, Skyla, my cousin Jane, and I go to the Hole in the Wall. At some point in the evening, I need to go outside to the car to get something. I tell my cousin not to tell Skyla I went out there because she would think I had abandoned her and would leave. I am of course thinking of the Who concert and Skyla thinking I left her there, but my cousin somehow completely misunderstands me, thinks I have left them, gets Skyla and takes her to the Split Rail in South Austin. I hated the Split Rail because nothing good ever came of it—this is only yet another example. My cousin had a nymphomaniacal streak and a nasty reputation because she and her best friend often picked up pairs of guys and took them to the nearby golf course to fuck. On this night she and Skyla pick up a pair of men from Houston and go back to their hotel with them and fuck all night.
Eventually Skyla and I parted ways. Not because of the rape but because of her naivete and my own immaturity. We had not been ready for anything more than dating, but neither of us had any guidance in this area.
After that she has a thing for black guys as if she is recreating the rape under more controlled conditions. It becomes her rape fantasy to act out, and maybe by acting it out, she rewrites the past to erase the violence.
A few years later, my cousin is driving her and me somewhere, and we drive past Skyla, who is walking along North Loop, and she has this black guy following her about ten feet behind. Skyla knew he was there, but she wanted him to walk behind her in this servile position. She likes to do things like that because it fuels her jet set fantasies of having a servant from whom, like Lady Chatterley, she might derive pleasures.