By: Jack Somers
In February 2001, the winter of my freshman year at Georgetown, I signed up for a school-sponsored retreat, a program intended to help new students get to know each other better. I hoped to meet a few kindred spirits on the retreat. Up to that point in the year, I didn’t feel I’d connected with anybody at school. My roommate, Mike, was a relaxed, friendly guy, but all he really wanted to do was drink and hang out with his girlfriend, Brooke, who rolled her eyes and clenched her teeth whenever I was around. The two other guys I’d met, Tanner and Martin, were roommates and lived across the hall. Like Mike, they devoted a good deal of their time outside of class to drinking or seeking out drink. When they weren’t hunting for alcohol, they were hunting for girlfriends of their own. We’d all heard that Ivanka Trump lived on the top floor of our dorm building, and Tanner and Martin had made more than a few trips up there to see if they could catch her in the hallway and strike up a conversation.
My primary focus at school other than getting grades high enough to keep my parents happy was finding guys who loved music as much as I did. I played guitar, and I badly wanted to start a band. At the beginning of the year, I’d put up flyers around campus with the aim of finding a bassist and a drummer who liked The Beatles and Radiohead and would be interested in forming a “hard rock group with an experimental edge.” My flyer had only netted one call from some weirdo who breathed heavily into the phone and kept asking me what I thought about Led Zeppelin’s second album. Disheartened but not defeated, I put the band dream on the backburner and spent the rest of the fall noodling around on my guitar, trying to write songs. I figured when I did at last meet some likeminded musicians, I’d at least be prepared with some original material. By the time February rolled around, I had about five decent songs written, and I was ready to actively seek out band mates again. With any luck, I thought, I’d find them on this retreat.
When I stepped onto the school bus that would take us out to the retreat house, I scanned the seats for likely musicians—guys with shaggy heads or facial scruff or military fatigue jackets. All I saw were a bunch of kids who looked like they were straight out of the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. I held out hope. There was another bus loading up behind us. Maybe all the cool kids were on that one.
I sat next to a blond boy named Keller who was a dead ringer for the mean rich kid from Pretty in Pink. For the next forty-five minutes, I nodded while he regaled me with stories of fishing at Martha’s Vineyard. When the bus finally pulled up to the retreat house, a sprawling two-story wooden compound in the middle of a desolate Maryland field, I was grateful.
Following the line of kids ahead of me, I got off the bus, passed through the front doors of the retreat house, and shuffled through a narrow foyer into a large meeting room with a fireplace and a wall of sliding glass doors. Across the room I spotted a petite girl in a lime green pea coat. She had black hair and a luminous white face, and she was without a doubt the prettiest girl I had ever seen. My goal instantly changed from finding my Paul McCartney to talking to this girl, seeing what she was like, determining if I had even the slightest chance with her.
Before I could make my way over to her, the retreat leader, a balding middle-aged Jesuit named Father Matt, broke us up into small groups. By the grace of God, I ended up in a group with her. The ten of us sat down in a circle on the floor with our group moderator, a sophomore who’d been on the retreat the year before, and took turns answering a series of getting-to-know-you questions. I learned the girl’s name was Karen, she was from Houston, she loved the Beatles, and she had the same birthday as me. I was smitten.
Over the course of the next three days, I spent as much time with Karen as I could. It didn’t take me long to discover that in addition to being gut-twistingly beautiful, she was also intimidatingly smart. She could recite Rilke and Baudelaire from memory. She was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I hadn’t been able to decode even the first sentence of, for fun. She could speak French fluently, and she used words like “consolidation” and “fallacious” in regular conversation. Frankly, she was way out of my league. I knew it, and I’m sure she knew it, too.
Still, there were moments when I thought she might just go for me. There was a guitar at the retreat house, and during one of our free periods, I picked it up and started playing the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood.” She came over and listened. Then she asked if she could play. I handed her the instrument, and she fingerpicked her way through “Blackbird” without a hitch. I asked her how to play it, and she showed me the fingering. As we went over the song, I thought, “This could work. I might not be as smart or as good-looking as her, but I know music, I love music, and so does she, and that might be enough.”
I devoted the remainder of the spring semester to obsessing over Karen. I blabbed endlessly to my poor roommate about how perfect she was, how there was no other girl in the world I could ever imagine myself with. When I traipsed across campus, I always looked out for her, and when I saw her, I panicked. I tried to think of something witty to say, something to make her laugh or get a conversation going, but usually all I could eke out was, “Hi, Karen.” I knew she knew I was totally in love with her, but I wasn’t sure how she felt about me. She always said hi and smiled. She didn’t look the other way or pretend to be too busy to talk. But she didn’t actively encourage me either. I knew there was no way she felt as strongly about me as I felt about her. If she did, she would have done something about it.
The year came to an end, and I went back home to Cleveland and found a job working on the grounds maintenance crew at an outdoor music venue. About a week after I got home, my dad mentioned this new singer-songwriter he’d seen on TV, some guy named Ryan Adams. He’d heard a couple songs and said he thought I’d like Adams’ music. The next day, I went to my favorite little record store with twenty bucks in my pocket and bought Adams’ first solo album, Heartbreaker.
It only took me one listen to fall in love with the record. Adams’ pristine acoustic guitar work and vivid, inventive lyrics were irresistible. His voice was irresistible, too—clear, honest, and broken, the voice of a young man who had ached like I had ached. I listened to Heartbreaker all the way through at least a thousand times that summer. I learned to play and sing every song. All the songs moved me deeply, but one of them moved me more deeply than any of the others. That song was “Oh My Sweet Carolina.”
“Oh My Sweet Carolina” sounded to me like the soundtrack for my spring infatuation with Karen. It said everything I wanted to say to her better than I could ever say it. The narrator in the song starts by singing about how he “went down to Houston” and then “went on to Cleveland,” the cities where Karen and I lived. It was like Adams knew our story and had written a song just for us, a song to bring us together, a song to prove to us that we were fated to be. Behind the lyrics I could hear Adams whispering to me, “Quit screwing around. Go after her. She’s the one.”
By the end of August, I had given myself a complete Ryan Adams makeover. I’d grown my hair to look just like his—a messy mop-top that swooped over my eyes and spilled over my ears. I’d purchased half a dozen snap front Western-style shirts and half a dozen more tight thrift store T-shirts bearing graphics that had long ago faded to inscrutability. I’d also written an album’s worth of new songs—all of them Adamsesque in style, all of them about Karen in some way.
I hit campus that fall ready to wow Karen with my music and win her over. Adams had given me the direction and inspiration I needed. Now I just had to find her and get her to listen somehow. I had to engineer a situation that would enable me to perform for her, to tell her musically how I felt because no ordinary confession would do.
The opportunity came sooner than I expected. A senior I knew on the Student Events Committee told me he was organizing an open mic in the student center lounge. He asked me to play. As soon as I got off the phone with him, I called my friend Derek, a guy I’d met on the retreat who was good friends with Karen (they’d gone to high school together), and invited him to the open mic. “Bring Karen, too,” I said. “If she isn’t busy.”
Karen and Derek showed up for the open mic right on time and listened to my set. I played three of my own songs, two of which were expressly about Karen, but I didn’t see any recognition flash across her face at the hints I’d dropped in the lyrics. She and Derek stayed until the end of the show, and afterwards, they walked over to congratulate me on my performance.
“Could you guys hang out for a minute?” I said. “I have one more song I want to play for you.”
Karen looked nervous, as if she suspected I was about to embarrass her. Maybe I was. I wasn’t quite sure how she was going to respond to “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Would it dawn on her as quickly as it had dawned on me that this song was about us? Would she recognize my performance of the song for what it really was—a profession of love, a four-minute encapsulation of all of my yearning? She and Derek sat down in armchairs, and I sat on a coffee table in front of them and started strumming right there. I closed my eyes as I played and sang. I didn’t want to look at Karen. If I saw her, I worried I might be overcome with feeling and get choked up. I might not make it to the end of the song.
I played the song well, I thought. I didn’t flub one chord or sing one flat note. At the end, I half expected Karen to fling herself into my arms and smother me with kisses. But when I opened my eyes, she wasn’t even looking at me. She was looking at something on the other side of the room. After a few seconds of silence, she snapped to and directed her attention back to me. Her mouth was a tight line. Her gaze was dull, expressionless. “That was, um, nice,” she stammered.
“Yeah, man,” said Derek. “That was great.” He sounded apologetic, like he knew what I had tried to do and felt bad that it hadn’t worked out. “Anyway, we gotta get going. We’ll see you around.”
They got up together and left. Right then I knew that if Karen had ever felt anything for me, she didn’t anymore. I stopped pursuing her. I thought the most loving thing I could do was respect the fact that she didn’t love me back and leave her alone—even if it killed me, and for a while there, I thought it might.
I didn’t listen to “Oh My Sweet Carolina” much after that night. Every time I listened to it, I was right back in that student lounge, humiliating myself, pouring my heart out to someone who wasn’t all that interested. Eventually, I stopped listening to Heartbreaker all together. I put the CD in a large Tupperware storage container with all the other CDs I didn’t listen to anymore and forgot about it. Years went by. I met other girls, I had other relationships, and finally I fell in love again—this time with a woman I ended up marrying.
A few weeks after the birth of my first daughter, I was driving home from work, listening to the radio, when I suddenly heard the crystalline chime of a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and Adams’ warm, plaintive tenor. The song was called “Lucky Now,” and it was the lead single from his new album Ashes and Fire. It sounded wistful and pretty like “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” and it whetted my appetite for Adams’ music again.
That night, after the baby fell asleep, I sat on the living room couch and listened to Heartbreaker for the first time in a decade. As the opening chords of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” hummed over the headphones, I braced myself for pain, for the cringe-inducing vision of myself serenading my indifferent muse. The image of that excruciating night did swim into my head, but to my surprise, it didn’t make me cringe. It didn’t make me blush with embarrassment. It didn’t fill me with shame. It just made me sad. At first, I wasn’t sure why I was sad, but as the song continued, it became clearer. It wasn’t because I pitied myself for losing Karen. It wasn’t because I missed Karen. It had nothing to do with Karen at all. It was because I missed that nineteen-year-old boy I had been, that boy who believed that love was simple and that you could win it with a song, that boy who was about to get the first bad bruising of his life. No song captured the sweet, still-unspoiled soul of that boy better than “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” I knew that boy was gone now, buried by ten years of growing up and struggling and learning to see the world in a starker, more pragmatic light. But listening to “Oh My Sweet Carolina” there on my couch, I felt a trace of him and the magical universe he inhabited.
Jack Somers’ stories have appeared in Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and a number of other publications. He has work forthcoming in The Nottingham Review, formercactus, and New Pop Lit. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and their three children. You can find him on Twitter @jsomers530 or visit him at www.jacksomerswriter.com.