We were a balanced group – two boys, two girls – young, free, and full of love and acceptance for anyone and everyone. We sang all the way from Colorado to Seattle. What else would four music majors do in a 1992 Honda accord for 24 hours? Ben Folds, Tori Amos, U2, Medieval choral music, Beatles, and Weird Al Yankovic. The Pretenders and Police and Prince. Anything we had on CD, which was a lot between four music lovers. The driver, naturally, chose the music, as we made our way to the Northwest Folk Life Festival in Seattle, Memorial Day Weekend, senior year of college.
Kat and Mike were ‘on again.’ Aaron and I were friends, but dangerously close to the ‘more than friends’ zone. A day before we left, I went to his house to check with him on some last minute details. I went straight past his housemates, like I had done so many times before, to his bedroom and walked right in. And found him in his underwear. Not doing anything embarrassing, mind you, that a post-adolescent college boy might have been doing. Just hanging out at his computer in his tighty-whiteys. I backed out immediately, both of us embarrassed and giggling nervously.
Looking back on it, I think that’s where it all started. An innocent, accidental encounter that no one could plan and no one knew exactly how to handle.
In the car, we made a perfect quartet – Kat’s soprano blending with Mike’s baritone in perfect harmony with Aaron’s tenor. My alto fit snugly into the music and we were complete. Perhaps it was in our harmonies that everything started, instead of that accidental flash of almost-nudity.
At the Columbia River we got out of the car and sang folk songs and spirituals – anything we could think of about rivers. Shenandoah, Down the River, Ohio, songs that your typical 20-something college kid would never have even heard of. Belting them out in four-part harmony over the water.
We got to Seattle in the evening. The hostel offered us free Keystone Light. From Colorado to Washington State to drink Keystone Light. Well, free beer was free beer.
Instead of Kat and I being sent to the girl’s dorm in the hostel while Mike and Aaron went to the boy’s, we were given a room for the four of us together. We walked into our own room, two bunkbeds staring at us as we pondered the sleeping predicament. Kat and Mike, who might have been back together were still not sleeping together, felt that separate beds in the same room was a good step for them. Aaron and I shared nervous glances.
Nobody said what everyone was thinking – someone at some point was going to get naked.
That’s when the flashing started. Like I said, perhaps it started with me walking in on Aaron, perhaps our vocal compatibility, perhaps that shared hostel room. But someone at some point decided that we all needed to see each other’s parts before the end of the trip. I felt it only fair to flash Aaron my boobs since I had already seen his stuff (albeit through white underwear). Then Kat wanted in on the fun and flashed Aaron and me. Not one to be left out when nudity was concerned, Mike flashed all of us his junk. Just pulled his pants down in the middle of the room and started waving it around while we all fell on the floor howling. Aaron jumped up and joined him until Kat and I had our shirts off with boobs waving as well.
At the festival, we set up our little spot on the grass and started singing. We got some listeners, but not many. It was obvious we weren’t serious musicians. Not compared to the others there. We soon gave up and simply enjoyed the music of others. We heard Japanese Taiko, someone semi-famous called the Spoon Man, a real life jug band complete with wash basin bass and an actual moonshine jug. We danced to Greek traditional music and learned a complicated hora that I will never forget. Before the end of the first day, our hands were intwined with whomever in our group we happened to be with. Kat and I went to go see Spoon Man, getting closer physically than we had ever been. Aaron and I clasped hands a little tighter than was necessary on that unforgettable hora. And all four of us traded off making out with the others as we participated in the midnight drum circle. We had entered a magical world where college, relationships, and boundaries didn’t exist. Only music, movement, magic, and the four of us in musical and physical harmony.
Looking back, it feels as though that weekend lasted months, years, even. Three days passed in ecstasy. The music was nothing like I had ever heard before or since. The closeness with other human beings, with those three other human beings, was something I had never experienced. Sleeping arrangements shifted and moved around in those four little bunkbeds of our hostel room. In the end, no one worried about who was seeing whose naked body parts. We were joined in an existential existence for one magical weekend.
I don’t remember the trip back very much. I remember being exhausted from the experience. We didn’t sing as much. The only person who stayed awake at any given time was the driver. A hush descended as we left Seattle, left Washington State, headed back to Colorado and reality. We didn’t even stop to sing at the Columbia River.
Back on campus, as Kat dropped us off at each of our homes, we hugged goodbye but didn’t kiss. Perhaps there had been enough kissing in Seattle.
We didn’t see each other after that. Aaron left for grad school. I moved back with my parents. Kat and Mike broke up again. By fall I heard they were back together. I went to their wedding two years later, met their first-born daughter a few years after that, then life happened and I didn’t see them again. At some point, I heard they’d divorced. I wasn’t surprised. My only surprise was how they had lasted as long as they did. Kat started going by Katherine and moved with her girls back to California to be with her parents. Mike remarried someone and fell off the face of the earth.
It’s funny how 20 years can seem faster than three days. It was at an alumni event that I saw Aaron again. I wasn’t going to go, but some friends convinced me. I knew him as soon as I saw him, and two decades disappeared. He was exactly the same, with a touch of grey at his temples. Probably I looked the same to him. We hugged awkwardly, the way you do when you see someone you slept with in a different and later situation. He had a little blonde girl with him about the same age as my son. We started chatting about life, where we were, what we were doing, very pointedly not discussing the situation in which we last saw each other – on the curb outside his home after having a ‘special’ weekend together. I tried to keep my voice calm and focused on our conversation about our kids (who were the same age) and the various job changes we’d had (which were almost identical).
But in the back of my mind all I could think of was him standing in the middle of our hostel room with Mike shaking their penises.
Then the most awkward thing of all happened. A beautiful woman about my height and age, looking eerily close to the way I looked, came up to him and wrapped her arm around his waist. He introduced me to his wife. She had their oldest by the hand and I reeled as I looked into a tiny version of 21-year-old Aaron. I thought of my own daughter at home who was probably a tiny version of 21-year-old me. That’s when reality entered. I was brought back to the present. That road trip was epic, yes it was. But it was just that – a road trip. Life changing? Perhaps. But more like a simple weekend splurge into the unknown that all college students need to experience.
I hugged Aaron, a little less awkwardly, shook his wife’s hand and said it was nice to meet her. And without regret, without embarrassment or longing, I walked away. Something within me shut the door on that wild weekend. Questions I’d never found answers to quieted down and rested in the back of my mind.
Others might have Burning Man, or Telluride, Woodstock, or Lilith Fair.
I have Seattle.