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When Laura was sixteen she wrote a perfect song. It was the first song she’d ever written, so she didn’t understand how hard it was to write even an okay song, or how hard it was to make anything new, in general. She still thought, then, that making something was primarily a way to have fun. She didn’t know that the song was perfect, just that it was as good as anything on the radio. She played it on her guitar alone in her bedroom, and then for her best friend, Callie, and then for her mother. Her mother made an approving noise and went back to paying attention to one of Laura’s brothers. Callie asked where she’d heard it and didn’t believe her when she said she’d written it, because it was the kind of song that sounds like it has always existed. Laura started to think that she must have heard it somewhere and remembered it. She hadn’t, though. She had written it.
The next day she wrote another song: this one wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t even okay; it was barely a song. This convinced Laura that the first song hadn’t really been hers. She was embarrassed about the whole thing, and so she pretended to herself that it hadn’t happened. She didn’t think about that first song again for years, and by the time she remembered, it was almost too late.
Now, at twenty-two, she stood in line outside a bar on the corner of Lafayette and Grand, sweating through a black dress that was absorbing all the heat of the midday sun. The other women in line were also wearing black, and some of them clutched the page of the Village Voice where the help-wanted ad had appeared. Some had printed out their résumés. Laura had never worked in a bar or restaurant. In Columbus, she’d worked selling cheap electric guitars to teenage boys at her family’s shop, and then for a while at the Gap in the outlet mall. So she hadn’t brought a résumé, but it didn’t matter. A man came out and walked down the line of women, assessing each one for an instant, then made his selections.
He looked at Laura and saw the way she smiled and made eye contact with no hint of wariness in her giant dark eyes, the expression on her face constantly saying something mildly incredulous, like, “Wow, really?” He guessed correctly that she was very new here. He walked back a step, pointed to Laura and two others, and told the rest they could go home.
Laura and the other two women stepped inside and blinked as their eyes adjusted from the glaring heat and brightness of the sidewalk to the chilled darkness of the bar. It was painted black, and the banquettes were dark red velvet, meant to give an impression of luxury, but like all bars in the daytime it stank and was sad, like an empty fairground. The guy who’d chosen them started training them immediately, without even asking their names. He had no way of knowing that they even knew English—and, as it turned out, one of them, Yulia, essentially didn’t—but it didn’t matter, because they weren’t being hired as bartenders or even waitresses. The ad had read “front-of-house staff,” and their job, as the guy described it, was to greet guests at the door and usher them to a banquette in either the upper or lower section of the bar, depending on how much money they looked likely to spend. Other than that, their job was to walk around in the bar and smile and chat. They were there to provide ambiance, like the chandeliers and the nicer-brand soap in the bathroom’s dispensers.
The pay was twelve dollars an hour, he said, plus sometimes the bartenders would tip them out. Twelve dollars an hour, plus (possible) tips—she would only have to work fifty-four hours a month, at most, to pay the $650 rent that her best friend and now roommate, Callie, informed her was an incredible bargain, considering their apartment’s perfect location on Third between First and A. Callie had lived in New York for almost five years now, because she’d gone to college there. Callie knew everyone, had regular haunts, and would have told Laura (if she’d asked) not to take the job at Bar Lafitte, might even have been able to hook her up with a better—less gross, more lucrative—bar job, but Laura was determined not to lean too heavily on Callie. She was trying not to just let all Callie’s friends become her friends by default.
Laura put her name on the schedule for a shift the next day and walked back out into the daytime, which now seemed even brighter. The blast of warm air carrying the sunbaked smells of piss and pavement felt good on her chilled bare legs and arms. She had shrunk into herself somewhat while inside the bar, and now that she was outside, she could expand fully back into her skin. She tried to ignore how relieved she felt to be out of there, and instead tried to feel happy that she now had a job. Having a job meant she would be able to afford to stay in the apartment she’d just moved into and could start making progress toward her goal: play shows, write more songs, get signed to a label, and make an album. She was going to become a professional musician. She would never go back to Columbus if she didn’t want to. The next time she saw her hometown it was going to be because she was on tour.
For the past week, she’d been saying hi to people whom she saw around the neighborhood more than once, thinking maybe those people would become her friends. The rules around saying hi were very different than they had been in Columbus, she had noticed. The man behind the counter at the bodega on her corner, which sold all kinds of Cadbury candy from the UK, had seemed surprised when she’d introduced herself on her second visit. He had been reluctant to reveal his own name, as if no one had ever asked him before.
Laura had broken up with a nice but boring boyfriend in anticipation of moving, one of a series of nice boring boyfriends that had begun when she was fourteen. Chris, Jason, Alex, Jason again, Darrell. She had never been in love. She liked to always have a boyfriend whom she wasn’t in love with so that she could have sex whenever she wanted and not have to worry about going on dates or having her heart broken or catching diseases. She had never been in love. She was in love with her music—she really was, and she sometimes told people so. But now she was determined to avoid even having another convenience-boyfriend. She wanted to be single, to know herself as a single person and to focus on writing songs. She listened to the Joni Mitchell album Hejira every day on her headphones, using a Discman that predictably skipped during her favorite track, “Song for Sharon,” which was about being an adventurer and not worrying about conventional trappings of female life. In that song, someone suggests to the narrator (ostensibly Joni) that she should settle down and have children or do charity work, and Joni responds that the cure for her melancholy is actually to find herself “another lover.” Laura loved that line so much.
It was nice to have the validation of getting a job, even a very easy bar job. Laura hadn’t gotten a lot of ego boosts lately, or actually ever. She had never been a great student, but she would often make up the distance between a C and a B by writing poems for extra credit, like the one about the Bill of Rights she’d written in eighth grade that rhymed “probable cause” with “due process clause.” Though she had changed in a few crucial ways since then, she still loved doggerel and patter and songs with complicated, weird, funny lyrics. She had gone to Ohio State University and studied English lit and spent a lot of time alone in her room with her acoustic guitar. Occasionally at an open-mic night she would play her songs for other people, who clapped politely and came up to her afterward and thought that she would consider being compared to Weird Al a compliment, which it sort of was, though she would have preferred to be compared to the Moldy Peaches.
In New York, she thought as she walked south down the darkening cavern of Lafayette, people would “get” what she was trying to do with her music, although she had to admit that she didn’t always “get” it herself all the time. She described her music’s genre as “anti-folk” when she had to call it anything. Her best song, or the one that audiences typically liked best, was a sort of mock ballad about a breakup called “I Want My Tapes Back,” in which she rhymed “I hope you know where they are” with “under the seat of your car.”
Her father had been a professional musician at one point in his life. He had gone on tour with the Allman Brothers and had played on two of their albums; Laura had cherished a record sleeve that had his name in tiny print in a long list of credits. Then he had come back to Ohio, married her mom and had three kids—two boys and Laura—and opened a guitar store. He had died when Laura was ten, in a car accident that would likely have been survivable if he’d worn a seat belt. Her mother had reacted by becoming extremely—and, Laura felt, perversely—religious. Laura had felt like the whole thing was proof that there was no God. But that wasn’t how the rest of her family saw things.
She loved her mom and her two older brothers, but she often felt like she didn’t quite speak the same language that they did. Words didn’t quite mean, to Laura, what they meant to her mom. Most of Laura’s choices—her haircuts, her plans, her friends—were “interesting.” The music she liked and the songs she wrote were “funny.” Still, as long as she didn’t ask anyone for money, the worst her family could do was subtly disapprove. She was an adult and no one could actually prevent her from doing anything, and anyway, no one cared enough about what she was doing to try to change her mind. She was a free adult! She stretched her arms to the heavens as she walked down First Avenue, turning onto her street—her street!—then swung them back to her sides, suddenly self-conscious.
The key that Callie had given her didn’t quite fit the lock and required delicate pressure and just the right angle. She thought of knocking but didn’t want to disturb Callie if she was home. When she finally got the door open, though, Callie was sitting at their small kitchen table, so absorbed in her complicated beauty routine that she hadn’t even heard the jangling in the hallway. She had her makeup all over the table and a cigarette burning in an ashtray, a tumbler full of Diet Dr Pepper and vodka next to it. It seemed incredibly bohemian to Laura that Callie smoked inside their apartment. Disgusting, but also bohemian.
Callie looked up at her, taking all of her in for a brief moment. “We ’re going out,” she announced. “You should wear my green dress; don’t wear your Ohio clothes.”
Laura went into Callie’s bedroom, where she extricated the dress (which wasn’t exactly clean, but smelled mostly pleasantly of Callie’s perfume) from the deep pile on the floor. She’d become aware within minutes of her arrival in New York of her entire wardrobe’s humiliating inadequacies. Most crucially, she had the wrong kind of jeans: flared denim with no stretch, so that there was an empty crease underneath her small butt, underscoring its smallness. Callie had jeans that looked like they’d been custom-fitted to her body and that ended just millimeters from her pubic bone. She worked in a boutique and also took photographs and did makeup, and her own makeup, as always, was perfect. Like Laura, she wanted to perform, but it wasn’t clear yet what her talent was exactly. Callie could get up on a stage and everyone would pay attention, but she hadn’t figured out what to do to keep that attention going. For as long as Laura had known her, Callie had always taken up to an hour to get ready to go out. When she was done with her makeup she would look like she wasn’t wearing much at all; she would just look like the most dewy, ideal version of herself possible.
When Laura came out of the bedroom, Callie gave her an approving once-over. “Perfect. Okay, so we’re going to see this band, and then we’re going out with the band afterward,” she said.
“Anyone I’ve heard of?”
“Maybe? They’re kind of becoming a thing. They’re called the Clips—I know, so stupid, but all band names sound stupid.”
“So true,” said Laura. “Like, Pearl Jam. Can you imagine the moment of thinking that was a good name?”
“Nirvana,” said Callie, rolling her eyes.
“Nirvana is actually a good name, though.”
“Forget everything you know about Nirvana for a second and then just think about the name. Aren’t you expecting something with panpipes that plays in the background at a spa?”
Laura thought about it and decided that Callie, as usual, was right. Laura had gotten in the habit of trusting Callie to point them both in the right direction. Ever since they’d first met, as high school freshmen, she’d happily submitted to being Callie’s protégée. True, Callie could be condescending; during that first year of their friendship, she’d coached Laura about what was cool and what wasn’t in a way that was sometimes brutal, and often shifted dramatically without warning. One week it was absolutely mandatory that they both wear cutoff jean shorts and peasant blouses, but then the next week Laura showed up to school in a version of the same outfit and Callie found it so unacceptable that she made her change in the bathroom. The next trend was baggy carpenter corduroy pants and Westernwear shirts, and Callie had actually brought spare ones in her backpack to prevent Laura from suffering the humiliation of wearing last week’s style one moment longer than necessary. It was mysterious and somewhat magical, the way Callie understood what would make them cool; she seemed to receive messages about it from the ether.
Back then, Laura had wondered what made Callie choose her; she’d thought maybe it had to do with her musical talent. Now that she was older she recognized that Callie had seen that Laura had the potential to be someone whose prettiness and talent burnished Callie’s own. She had been the one who had decided what kind of teenager Laura would be: the kind who played guitar and smoked cigarettes in the courtyard when she should have been studying. They had both still been near the top of their class, though; their school was easy, and no one tried too hard at anything besides football. Callie was known then as an “artist,” monopolizing the art classroom’s darkroom to enlarge giant black-and-white photographs of her own face.
“Your face is fun to put makeup on,” she had said one night when they were in Callie’s bedroom getting ready to go to a party (upperclassmen, parents out of town). Callie’s own face, already anointed with glitter that smelled like vanilla cake, hovered close to Laura’s as she dabbed something cool onto Laura’s eyelids with a velvety-damp wand. “I can make you look however I want you to look.”
Laura wasn’t an idiot. She understood, even at fifteen, that this would always be a good friendship exactly to the extent that she wanted to be molded. But also, taking responsibility for her own self-presentation felt, mostly, like work she could happily outsource. And Laura wasn’t purely Callie’s sidekick, or at least, like most good sidekicks, she could take over as the heroine if the situation demanded it. Once, junior year, they had been driving around aimlessly in Callie’s rusted-out old car, talking about nothing and singing along to the radio. Then the car had broken down. They weren’t far outside of town, but neither of them recognized their immediate surroundings; it soon became clear that they were really lost, and it was cold out. The joint they’d smoked had not helped. At first it was kind of an adventure. Then as they kept walking, getting colder, talking about how maybe they should flag someone down to help them and deal with the consequences if that person happened to be a serial killer or a molester, it became less of one. It was Laura who spotted the first recognizable landmark. She turned up a side street that led to a gas station and dealt with the details of getting a tow truck and a ride back to her house, where she made Callie a cup of tea and put her to bed in the upper bunk of the bunkbeds in her still-childish bedroom.
The only flaw in Callie’s plan for Laura was that it had failed to take Laura’s mom’s finances into account; though they’d both gotten into NYU, Callie’s family was willing and able to pay for it, while Laura’s family—reasonably, Laura thought—refused to let her take out enormous loans when she could go to a good school much closer to home. She had feared that they would lose touch once Callie was in the city. But Callie was not the kind of person who would leave a project unfinished. They also both found that it was hard to create the kind of easy intimacy they had with each other with anyone else. They had a legacy of secrets and inside jokes. Combined, they were more powerful than they were apart. So when the roommate who’d been in the second “bedroom” of Callie’s apartment moved out to live with her boyfriend, she’d called up Laura and told her there was a spot for her, if she had $650 and wanted to move to New York and claim it. She did.
“So how do you know … the Clips?” Laura asked as Callie circled her, tweaking the hem of the dress, smoothing stray pieces of her dark hair into a half-up, half-down situation.
“I had a class with the drummer once, and then I saw them play a few weeks ago at another thing and afterward I went backstage, etcetera.”
Callie shrugged and continued. “It seems like musicians are the people you should know, right? Plus, they’re all hot.”
“I’m looking for people who can help me book shows, not boys to hook up with. And don’t ask why can’t I do both—you know I’m not good at multitasking.”
Callie laughed. “I forgot about your vow of celibacy.”
“I’ll have plenty of time to slut it up when I’m famous. I mean, when I’ve accomplished something.”
“What are you going to write songs about in the meantime, though, if not love? Or at least sex?”
Callie’s desire to basically pimp Laura out had always been a little bit tiresome. Laura tried to distract her. “I wrote a song about egg sandwiches this morning. Want to hear it?”
Without waiting for Callie to respond, Laura put down her drink and grabbed her guitar from the other room. “ ‘Bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll,’ ” she sang. “ ‘Or sometimes just egg and cheese. In a greasy paper sleeve, I eat you on the street.’ ” She played a few more lines and then noodled around a little bit. “I’m still trying to figure out the chorus,” she admitted.
Callie scrunched up her nose. “I don’t think that one is going to be climbing the charts.” She motioned for Laura to come sit by her near the makeup mirror. Laura put down her guitar and complied.
A few minutes later Callie finished doing Laura’s hair and stepped away from her quickly, as though preventing herself from continuing to fiddle with and potentially ruin a perfect creation. They both looked at Laura’s reflection in the mirror for a moment with satisfaction.
Something about Laura’s looks hadn’t made sense in the context of their hometown. To be pretty there, you had to be symmetrical, straight-haired, and small-nosed, ideally white, ideally blond. Within those parameters, you could be pretty or just blandly palatable, like a pat of butter on a squishy dinner roll. Laura’s big eyes and off-kilter nose made her look different from different angles, which made figuring out whether she was attractive too confusing for the consumers of the buttered rolls. But with the city as her backdrop, she was starting to make more sense. She didn’t have the perfumed, deliberate, and commanding hotness of a Callie. But in their dim apartment, backlit by the lamp Callie kept next to her futon mattress on the floor, she had the look of an ingénue about to step onstage, lit with an anticipatory glow.
Excerpted from PERFECT TUNES, by Emily Gould. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Emily Gould’s second novel, Perfect Tunes (out April 14), is about a young musician living in early-aughts Manhattan whose infatuation with another musician alters the trajectory of her life. Jen Gann, senior editor, chatted with Gould by phone about some of the book’s subjects, including creativity, motherhood, vomit, and money. Below, an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
Did you have a favorite part of writing Perfect Tunes? Did any of it come to you “effortlessly?”
Oh yes — the big set piece where Laura is taking care of Marie while she has a stomach virus when she’s a little baby. That part was a little treat for myself because I was trying to do some heavy plot lifting elsewhere — making a lot of time pass in a handful of scenes — and I had decided in advance that the scene would start when she woke up and would end when she finally fell asleep. I just really wanted to hone in on all of the physical details of what it’s like to have a 9-month-old and be covered from head to toe in someone else’s vomit. That’s my idea of fun, I guess?
I was so full of compassion the first two times this happened in my own life; I was able to mother through everything. But then the most recent time it was like that moment in 30 Rock when Jack Donaghy is petting Liz Lemon, who is slumped over the toilet, with a broom. Like “there, there.” But that’s the point — you just have to reach into yourself and just do it.
I think I like to be uncomfortable — because as soon as I feel like I’m sort of getting to the groove of some particular mode of working, I end up forcing myself to switch it up and teach myself a new skill. It might sound twisted, but writing is actually the thing that I make the most money from even though I’ve tried doing all these other non-writing things. So at a certain point, I just have to accept that and stop trying to have a plan B. Whenever I’ve tried to make more practical choices, it’s ended up blowing up in my face. I have really struggled over the years to find ways to combine doing stuff that I’m good at and that I like doing with making money, and that’s just always going to be a problem.
The past few years, I sort of decided semi-consciously like, okay, I’ve never written a profile. I’m going to teach myself how to write profiles by writing profiles. As soon as I figured out the basics of it, I was like okay, I’m going to challenge myself to do another thing and be bad at it first. Every book I’ve written is that way — me trying to figure out how to write a different type of book.
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