To understand why I was standing in a stairwell, blasting "Space Oddity" against the bright, echoing walls, I could explain the dictates of the human heart. Or I could simply tell you that I was 19.
Because when you're 19, you do a lot of things that don't make sense: like blast a Bowie song in the stairwell outside the college radio station where your crush is currently doing his shift. Even though you know he's in a soundproof booth. Even though you haven't thought through what you would say or do if he actually did poke his head through the doors at the top of the stairs; to see you crouched in the stairwell with your huge boom box.
"Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom?"
The music swells, and you feel important. It feels cinematic.
My love for David Bowie will always be inextricably interwoven with memories of WPSU, the Penn State radio station, housed back then in Sparks building, an ornate white marble building near the campus library. Me and the guy I'll call Tom, and my soul sister, whom I'll call Katie, made up the sort of complicated friendship triangle that can probably exist at any phase in life but tends to exist when those involved are young, with nothing to think about but schoolwork and love.
Katie and I operated on the same wavelength, spontaneously erupting into silliness that baffled those around us, such as climbing a tree behind the student union and mewing plaintively to see who'd look up. When I met her, she was playing everything around her with a set of drumsticks: a table, a chair, the wall. She was hanging out with a mutual friend in the student union hallway, waiting to see a band. Feeling impish, I gushed over the mutual friend, as if he was famous, begging him for an autograph. He gave me the sort of annoyed look that said I was intruding, and I have to admit he was right. I stole her attention away for the rest of the evening. She had wild, curly auburn hair, the faintest freckles on her nose, and a way of talking -- somewhere between a growl and a laugh -- that felt instantly familiar.
I ran a three-hour weekly show on the campus radio station, WPSU. Called "The Caverns of Your Mind," it incorporated music, dramatic readings, and even sound bites from films. My staff of about 10 people took turns researching and writing each show, which ranged from explorations about topics (such as vampires, '70s culture and Freud) to audio documentaries (such as bios on rock groups or a four-hour opus to Monty Python). Tom was my host. He was thin and blonde, with a heart-shaped face and a crease in his forehead that made him appear either wise or alien, depending on the moment. He was smart, sarcastic and creative, and I loved him fiercely from afar. Because, you see, he was dating a gorgeous, soft-spoken redhead, Glinda, whom even I had to admit was anybody's dream date.
When I confessed my crush to Katie, who by then had joined the "Caverns" staff, she clucked sympathetically but gave me no hope. She hung out with Tom all the time, she told me, and it didn't seem likely that he was going to break up with Glinda the Good Girlfriend.
After I'd introduced them, Katie and Tom had bonded over a mutual love of David Bowie, and desperate to be included in their in-jokes, I asked Katie to recommend an album. At her suggestion, I bought "The Man Who Sold the World," incorporating some of the best songs into my mix tapes. I'd walk around the freezing Penn State campus in winter, listening to "Moonage Daydream" on my Walkman and singing at the top of my lungs: "Keep your 'lectric eye on me, babe / Put your ray gun to my head / Press your space face close to mine, love / Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah."
Bowie became the soundtrack for our somewhat incestuous trio: Tom and Katie had a rapport usually reserved for close family, finishing each other's sentences and feuding the way you only do with siblings. Like the time they were playing chess in the booth while co-hosting a show on -- who else? -- David Bowie. He had a fit and knocked over the chess board because she made fun of his choice for the best Bowie album ever. A nagging part of me wondered, always, if he secretly had a thing for her, just like I had a thing for him. At times, I had to wonder who it was that really made me jealous.
Have you ever connected with someone on such a level that you can't tell love from friendship? You savor every moment with them, write those words into your memory bank. Like listening to "Space Oddity" on headphones in the huge turntable in the station lobby, then handing it to Katie so she could hear the way the trippy space sounds migrated from ear to ear.
We worked the graveyard shift at the station, because at the time, my show aired late Saturday (back then it was called "Before the Dawn," before moving to a slightly earlier time on Fridays and being renamed "Caverns of Your Mind"). The final hour of our four-hour slot was usually a recorded show we got from NPR, "Joe Frank's Works in Progress." We only had to press play and then listen to the monitor to make sure the reel-to-reel didn't get mangled. During that time, we got up to all kinds of nonsense.
I savor every ridiculous moment. Like the time we fought over the chalk eraser from the station lobby chalkboard, trying to pound chalk onto each other. At one point, Tom held the eraser aloft, his eyes darting back and forth between us, and quoted The Joker from Tim Burton's "Batman": "Time to play who do you trust?" And because I am who I am, I wondered if he'd sussed me out, if he knew that I was conflicted about the two of them. If forced to choose, who would I pick? Katie being who she is, she called his bluff, wrestling the eraser out of his hand and banging chalk all over his trench coat.
Or the time he wedged himself into the narrow hallway and climbed all the way to the top, inching down the hallway near the ceiling like Spider-Man while I marveled and Katie snorted. Or the time the two of them went out the station lobby window and, as they told me later, walked around the third floor of Sparks building on the freaking window ledge! I both envied them and shuddered at what would have happened if they'd fallen and I'd lost them both.
I must confess that when I read these sorts of interactions in other people's YA pieces, I find them unbelievable, cloying and self-important. But thinking back, that is exactly what it's like to be 19. You care too much; play too hard; take stupid chances; and make mistakes.
My mistake was the particularly clunky way I chose to reveal my love for Tom. I wrote him an overwrought poem with Gothic undertones I thought would match his love for irony. When I read it nowadays, I cringe, contemplating what I would do if someone showed me such a damaged love declaration. Run screaming, perhaps? He only read it quietly in the record library where I'd asked him to join me, then handed it back to me and told me he was flattered.
I, in turn, was devastated. Because I was 19 and didn't realize how important our friendship must have been to him that he chose to let me down so kindly. That he didn't run away from the record library, shoving shelves of vinyl between us to protect himself. That he kept doing the show, kept including me in conversations, kept showing up to our show meetings until his work for his film major got too intense and he had to step down as the show host. Yes, he did everything I ever asked of him, except love me.
The postscript is suitably cinematic. In the final days of our senior year, I'd asked him for a copy of his senior film, a Lynchian movie I'd seen at that year's student showcase, The Can Film Festival (because film comes in cans -- get it?). I met him in the basement of Sparks, where students could reserve video edit bays for personal projects. He was just finishing up my copy when I entered.
As he handed off the finished tape to me, I told him again how much I'd loved his film. Strange and complicated, full of aliens and hidden secrets, it was a master work, I told him. He thanked me, with that shy bend of his body that I'd always found a little balletic.
I don't remember the exact words we exchanged, only the look in his eyes, which said it all. He was truly baffled by my praise, and at the same time, grateful that someone saw that in him. That someone saw that alien side of his nature, and didn't just tolerate it but thought it was pretty freaking awesome. That glance summed up our whole four-year relationship: the friendship, the longing, the connection that blended both.
Or maybe I was reading too much into it. I was barely older than 19.