I considered this as a couple of kids on Rollerblades whizzed past, hockey sticks over their shoulders. "Yeah," I said, finally, "but you could also look at it the other way. Like you're saying no matter how bad things are for you, I can still relate."
"Ah," he said. "So you're saying you relate to me."
"No. Not at all."
"Nice." He laughed, turning his head to look out the window. I caught the quickest flash of his profile, and remembered all those days I'd spent studying him from a distance.
"Okay," I said. "Maybe a little."
He turned back, facing me, and I felt it again. Another pause, just long enough for me to wonder what, exactly, was happening. Then he pushed the door open. "So," he said, "um, thanks again for the ride."
"No problem. I owed you."
"No," he said, "you didn't." He untangled himself from the seat. "I'll see you tomorrow, or something."
"Yeah. See you then."
He got out, shutting the door behind him, then grabbed his bag and started up the steps. I watched him until he went inside.
As I pulled away from the curb, the whole afternoon seemed so strange, surreal. There was so much filling my head, too much to even begin to understand, but as I drove, I suddenly realized something else was bothering me: The CD had stopped and there was no music. Before, I probably wouldn't have even noticed, but now that I had, the silence, if not deafening, was distracting. I wasn't sure what this meant. But I reached forward and turned on the radio anyway.
Beauty and the Beast. The Odd Couple. Shrek and Fiona. I had to hand it to the rumor mill: Over the next couple of weeks, they came up with lots of names for me and Owen and whatever it was we were doing every day on the wall at lunch. For me, it was harder to define. We weren't together by any means, but we weren't strangers. Like so much else, we fell somewhere in the middle.
Whatever the case, some things now were just understood. First, that we'd sit together. Second, that I'd always give him a hard time about not eating anything—he'd confessed to me he spent his lunch money on music, always—before sharing whatever I'd brought. And third, that we would argue. Or not argue, exactly. Discuss.
Initially, it was only about music, Owen's favorite subject and the one about which he felt the most strongly. When I agreed with him, I was brilliant and enlightened. When I didn't, I had the Worst Taste in Music in the World. Usually the most spirited exchanges came at the beginning of the week, as we discussed his radio show, which I now listened to faithfully every Sunday morning. It was hard to believe that once I'd been so nervous to tell him what I thought. Now, it came naturally.
"You've got to be kidding!" he said one Monday, shaking his head. "You didn't like that Baby Bejesuses song?"
"Was it the one that was all touch-tones?"
"It wasn't all touch-tones," he said indignantly. "There was other stuff, too."
He just looked at me for a second, half of my turkey sandwich poised in his hand. "like," he said, then took a bite, which meant he was stalling. After taking his time chewing and swallowing, he said, "The Baby Bejesuses are innovators of the genre."
"Then they should be able to put together a song using more than a phone keypad."
"That," he said, pointing at me with the sandwich, "is I-Lang. Watch it."
I-Lang meant Inflammatory Language. And like R and R and placeholders, it had become part of my daily vocabulary. Hang out with Owen long enough, and you got an Anger Management tutorial, free of charge.
"Look," I said, "you know I don't like techno music. So maybe, you know, you should stop asking me my opinion of techno songs."
"That is such a generalization!" he replied. "How can you just rule out an entire genre? You're jumping to conclusions."
"No, I'm not," I said.
"What do you call it, then?"
He just looked at me for a second. Then, with a sigh, he took another bite of the sandwich. "Fine," he said, chewing. "Let's move on. What about that thrash metal song by the Lipswitches?"
"It's supposed to be noisy! It's thrash metal!"
"I wouldn't mind the noise, if there were other redeeming qualities," I told him. "It's just someone wailing at the top of their lungs."
He popped the last bit of crust into his mouth. "So no techno and no thrash metal," he said. "What's left?"
"Everything else?" I said.
"Everything else," he repeated slowly, still not convinced. "Okay, fine. How about the last song I played, the one with glockenspiel."
"Yeah. By Aimee Decker. There was a stand-up bass, and some yodeling at the beginning, and then…"
"Yodeling?" I said. "Is that what that was?"
"What, now you don't like yodeling, either?"
And on and on. Sometimes, it got heated, but never to the point where I couldn't handle it. The truth was, I looked forward to my lunches with Owen, more than I ever would have admitted.
Between our discourses on early punk, big band and swing, and the questionable redeeming qualities of techno music, I was learning more and more about him. I now knew that although he'd always had a passion for music, it wasn't until his parents divorced a year and a half earlier that he'd become, to use his word, obsessed. Apparently the split had been pretty ugly, with accusations going back and forth. Music, he told me, was an escape. Everything else was ending and changing, but music was this vast resource, bottomless.
"Basically," he said one day, "when they wouldn't talk to each other, I got stuck in the middle, doing all the go-between work. And of course, it was always the other one who was terrible and inconsiderate. If I agreed, I was screwed, because someone got offended. But if I disagreed, that was taking sides, too. There was no way to win."
"That must have been hard," I said.
"It sucked. That's when I started really getting into the music thing, all the obscure stuff. If nobody had heard it, nobody could tell me what I was supposed to think about it. There was no right and wrong there." He sat back, waving away a bee that was circling around us. "Plus, around that same time, there was this college radio station out in Phoenix that I started listening to—KXPC. There was this one guy who had a late-night shift on the weekends… he played some seriously obscure shit. Like tribal music, or seriously underground punk, or five full minutes of a faucet dripping. Stuff like that."