When I was about 12 years old, my aunt and uncle and my cousin Sara moved to Alabama. I remember it being so hard because Sara and I were the same age and we grew up together. We were very close. So, about a year later, my parents made the decision to fly me to Alabama to spend time with my cousin.
I was 13 years old. Just a baby. I was flying for the first time by myself. I had a brief layover in Memphis, TN, then my aunt and cousin would pick me up in Birmingham, AL.
Then my plane had mechanical troubles here. We sat on the plane, at the gate, for over an hour. This was in the days that you could go anywhere in an airport, you just couldn’t get on a plane without a ticket. So my mom was standing in the lounge, staring out the window at my plane, wanting to know why we didn’t take off. Eventually, they fixed the problem and away we went, without ever disembarking.
However, when we landed in Memphis, we had missed the connecting flight and we had to wait for the next flight, which was six hours away.
For six solid hours, I sat by myself in the Memphis airport. I called my mom, from a payphone, every hour to talk to her. My aunt and cousin had arrived in Birmingham and I wasn’t there. They called my mom and got the scoop, then they had to wait six hours for me to get there. Or maybe they went home? I don’t remember. It was about a two hour drive to their house from the airport, so I don’t think they went home.
I had my walkman with me, I listened to my cassettes, probably Paula Abdul and New Kids on the Block, I was pretty into them in 1992. I probably had three or four books with me, I did sit in the terminal and read for the bulk of the time. I found a restaurant and ate dinner by myself. I remember being worried about it. I didn’t know if I was allowed. Seriously. I had never been in a restaurant by myself and I didn’t know if I was allowed to go in without an adult because they served alcohol there. There were no fast food restaurants in the area where I was waiting and I was afraid to wander too far by myself.
I remember I ordered a kiddie cocktail to drink and felt very grown up.
I remember being scared when I had to pay. I didn’t have a ton of money with me. I was 13! and I wasn’t sure how to do it. But I figured it out. I hope I left a tip. I have no idea if I even knew you were supposed to tip back then.
Eventually, they called my plane and I got on board. The first one, I think. They knew I was flying alone and, of course, I had been sitting at the gate for HOURS, so I think they let me on first.
Then, in a blink, it was over and I was in Alabama. When I got off the plane, my Aunt Kate hugged me so hard and said, “we were so worried about you!” And Sara wanted to know everything I did. I told them the whole story as we drove to their house where my Uncle Frank was waiting for us. It was late, well after dark when we arrived, so they showed me around their house and then shooed us off to bed.
Sara’s room was upstairs and I remembered thinking it was so cool, with it’s sloped ceilings and tiny window that opened onto the street. Plus, it was HUGE.
Except, it wasn’t. It was probably a pretty small room, but it seemed huge to me because it was hers, all to herself. I shared my room at home with my sister and it always felt smaller than it really was.
Their town, Fayette, was so small, there wasn’t a lot for us to do. A highlight of the trip was going to Wal-mart, which they called Wally World, and I was confused. I didn’t know where we were going until we got there and I saw it was Wal-mart. I had no idea why they called it that, and I didn’t ask.
Sara and I wandered around, up and down the aisles. We took a toy ball out of one of those big bins and bounced it around the store, tossing it to each other. Aunt Kate was actually shopping, but we were free. Loose in the store and able to look at whatever we wanted. It was freedom at its most elemental level. At home I never got to do that. When we went to the store, it was for a purpose and mom never let us just wander around by ourselves.
This was different. This was our entertainment, how we had fun. Eventually, as teenage girls were wont to do, we found ourselves in the music area. We browsed through cassettes and singles, talking about who we loved and who was cute and our favorite songs. We talked about the new song by Guns-N-Roses that had just been released. She said she loved it. I had heard it, but I wasn’t that familiar with it. But I still think I said I loved it, too.
We found it. A cassette single of GNR’s “November Rain”. (The b-side was “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, how awesome is that?). I think it cost $1.99 and, boy, that seemed like so much money to me then. Now, I’ll drop that on iTunes for a song and consider it cheap.
When we got back to her house, we went up to her room, put my new cassette in her boombox, clicked it on repeat, and sprawled on her bed, just talking.
For hours we laid up there, talking and giggling and listening to that song over and over. The soft piano intro, the sound of rain in the background, Axl’s gritty vocals, the orchestral climax, then, just when you think it is over; the music creeps back in for a couple minutes more and Axl whispers “Don’t you think that you need somebody, don’t you think that you need someone, everybody needs somebody, you’re not the only one.” Over and over, louder and more intense until it reaches a crescendo, then softly fades out.
I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many times we listened to this song. Hundreds, at least.
For me, it was the first time I can recall having a physical reaction to music. My heart would thump harder at my favorite parts, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach at the intro. I reacted to this song. There had been other songs I liked, many that I even loved, but the feelings evoked by a song were new to me. Or, if not new, I was at least newly aware; I finally recognized it.
At night, when it was cooler (this was August in Alabama–it was never cool), we’d go outside with my Uncle Frank, who used to sit on a bench in the backyard and just be outside. We’d run around, barefoot in the cool grass and jump and twirl and spin and laugh and fall, breathlessly to the ground. Then we’d stand up and do it again.
One night, he brought two mason jars outside and told us we should catch fireflies. I’d caught them in my hands, held them, cupped gently inside, while holding my hands up to my eye and peering through the tiniest of cracks to see that light blinking on and off, but this was different. The air was thick with fireflies, flashing and glowing, lighting up the muggy nights; so thick you could swipe your hand through the night and swat a half a dozen without even trying. We took our mason jars and ran through the yard, leaping to catch more and more. Of course, many we caught would escape, as we never put the lid on right away, always trying to catch just another one.
Eventually, we tired ourselves and screwed on the lids. Then we sat in the grass at his feet as he talked to us, his slow, soft drawl seeming like the night itself. He talked of his boyhood and stories to make us giggle. We each held up a jar filled with tiny blinking lights. His face, and ours, would blink, on and off, an eerie neon yellow.
When it was time, he let us take our jars up to our room and we placed them by the bed, used as nightlights. We fell asleep to the blinking strobe of the bugs as the soft strains of Axl Rose whispered to us, just an echo in that room.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if, after 20 years that is still my favorite song. There are songs I’ve fallen in love with since that I’d be tempted to list as my favorites. Does the ghost of my childhood still get to decide what is my favorite song?
This morning, whilst blog hopping, I stumbled across a blog with a link to the original 1992 live performance of GNR debuting that song at the MTV music awards, with Sir Elton John (who wasn’t even a knight back then) accompanying them on the piano. I remember watching that live on television. I was in awe of it then. I’ve heard it countless times in the intervening years, but it’s been a long while since I listened. Stopped everything else and just listened to the music.
Today, 20 years later, as I listened to it, I could feel those same emotions rippling through me. I felt the heat on my skin as we laid in Sara’s room flopped out on her bed, the song on repeat. I can smell the night air and hear Uncle Frank’s voice. I feel my body jumping through space to catch an elusive firefly. I remember being scared in that restaurant and how grown up I was to be traveling alone.
Every moment, every memory of that time of my life is embedded in that song. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t the best song in the world or even my favorite song to listen to. It holds a piece of the girl I used to be and reminds me of family and of friendship and of love.
If you’ve ever wondered why that song, now you know. If you’ve never wondered, then I hope you enjoyed this retelling. Stumbling across it by chance today, it stirred up those memories and I wanted to put them down; to make sure I never forget. Of course, I’ll always have the song to remind me if things get hazy.