The smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes coated the air and Bob Seger’s “Main Street” played on the staticky speakers when Jake spotted me standing in line for the Tilt-a-Whirl. He wore a purple button-down and jeans. And that smile. Always that smile.
That memory about a junior college crush led me down a rabbit hole of journal entries and early 1990s music. Back then “big-hat” country played on all of our stereos, and Garth Brooks was its king. Listening to him, 20-year-old me swore the connections I made then would last forever.
I scoured online stores for his songs, but apparently he doesn’t do digital. While out grocery shopping at my local superstore, I found The Ultimate Hits, a compilation CD that contained my favorites, ripped it to my laptop then added it to my phone. And I was transported to the motel-turned-dorm that my athlete friends and I lived in freshman year. His voice provided the soundtrack to my first “buzz,” my first make-out sessions, my first crushing loss.
These are my liner notes.
“Friends in Low Places” was our anthem from 1990 to 1992. Whenever it played, a singalong happened. In his book Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman discussed “The Passion of the Garth” and said “Friends in Low Places” is “a song that makes me want to get drunk out of spite.”
And I did, though, instead of whiskey, it ended up being the vodka drowning and the beer chasing my blues away. For 18 years, parents, coaches, and teachers had told me what to do, where to go, and how to act. In September 1990, I was away from home for the first time and that song gave me permission to just be—to enjoy college life without worrying about disappointing someone. Sunday night through Friday morning, I was in charge, I made the decisions.
I eased out of the “good girl” role I’d played all my life. In December 1990, I caught my first buzz on a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler (yes, it took only one) at a rock quarry bonfire AND I made out with Shaun, a cute baseball player. Once, a bunch of us spent the night together, piled up in my room after a rousing game of “Pictionary,” boys and girls sharing floor, couch, and bed. I mean, nothing happened, unless you count snoring and drooling on pillows, but for a “goody two shoes” like me, it was a big deal.
The “low places” part of the song was apt to. We all lived in the epitome of a crappy motel: two beds, two dressers, a heating and air conditioning unit underneath the window, a bathroom, a mini fridge, an occasional mouse, and zero soundproofing. So if anything did happen in the adjoining room, you knew it.
Also, we were all on the same financial level: blue-collar broke. As far as I knew, none of us lived in the ivory towers Garth sings about. Bud Light was the fancy beer; Natural Light was the usual. McDonald’s and Hardee’s provided dinner. We all drove basic vehicles: I had a hand-me-down Honda, while friends drove old pickups, four-door sedans, or cars that just got good gas mileage. I didn’t care who had what as long as I had my friends and a good time.
During those years, we lived in two different worlds—school in Fayette, Ala., during the week and our hometowns on the weekend. And what happened in Fayette, stayed in Fayette. Well, until now.
Once upon a time a VHS tape existed that featured my buddy Tony performing Garth’s hit “Rodeo” in his boxers.
Tony and I had known each other for years; we attended rival high schools. He was a smart-ass, but funny, and we rarely took his comments seriously. Who can take seriously a stout 6-foot-2 first baseman, in his underwear, singing about spurs and latigo?
By then, it was the end of sophomore year. We had moved from the motel-turned-dorm to a bit less terrible apartment building. That week I borrowed my cousin’s video camera to capture our last hurrah before school ended and we all scattered. My best pal, Kim, another friend, and I wandered up to Tony’s room with the camera rolling.
He was just unwinding after a raucous evening. When he saw us, he just kept going. Eyes squinched, face screwed up, imaginary mic in hand, he wailed “and they called the thing rodeo…woah…woah.” We were rolling on the floor laughing long before ROFL became a thing.
I haven’t seen Tony since we left school in 1992, but I won’t forget his rendition of “Rodeo.” Wherever he is, I hope he’s still hearing the “roar of the Sunday crowd” like he did that night. And I hope he’s still unafraid to put on a show, just maybe with pants now.
While cleaning my new house, I set Garth’s “The Ultimate Hits” to shuffle and all the songs brought good, funny memories. But when I heard the first notes of “The Dance,” I had to sit down and write this. I couldn’t listen until now, and while writing I’ve replayed it 12 times.
Dark-haired, brown-eyed Jake had the best grin—open, warm, a little crooked and a little mischievous. When he smiled at me, for a moment all the world was right. He was the first guy I ever asked out. Two weeks before freshman year ended, I asked him to a cookout at a friend’s house on the river, but he already had plans. I never brought it up again. Then school was out, and it was too late anyway.
When sophomore year started in September 1991, we fell back into an easy friendship. I still adored him, but I kept it to myself. This song brings it all back: the first time I saw him, our talks after class while walking to our cars, his intensity on the pitcher’s mound, the time he struck out during the baseball vs. softball team scrimmage, his version of the Running Man at The Club. And that smile.
I remember all that. I also remember the police officer standing at our door on Oct. 7, 1991. I see the dingy county hospital emergency room where five of us wait to hear about Jake and Russ, who’d been in a car accident. I hear Mike saying Will is going to be okay. Then I hear him saying, “Jake’s dead. Jake’s dead.” And I feel myself sitting there frozen. No tears. No words. No movement. Not Jake. No. No. No.
At his funeral, the dam burst, and I sobbed along with everyone else in the gym. As I write this nearly 25 years later, the tears come again. “The bad news is you never completely get over the loss,” author Anne Lamott said. “But this is also good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.” The pain was worth knowing Jake, laughing with him, crushing on him, and being his friend. (Will, seriously injured in the wreck, returned to school that winter. I’d never been happier or more relieved to see someone.)
Why was losing Jake so hard? He wasn’t even mine to lose. We were friends, nothing more. Why do thoughts of him appear out of nowhere? Maybe because I had a crush on him for so long. Maybe because he was the first close friend I lost. Maybe because I had so much more to say to him. More jokes about the baseball coach, more sports talks, more laughs about his dancing. More of it all.
My heart aches for everything that will never be because Jake is gone. My heart is full because of everything that was while he was here.
When my phone shuffles to “Shameless,” I turn up the volume and remember Kim and I singing loudly, and badly, proclaiming our love for That One Guy (whoever he was at the time). Whether we were in her maroon hatchback with the windows down, riding around our one-horse college town, playing spades at our table made of a wooden power line spool, or studying for exams in our 1970s-wood-paneled living room, we sang the hell out of that song whenever it played on the radio or someone’s boombox.
Of course, the song is about loving someone, so much you’ll do anything for them. But looking back, I see it as about embracing and exploring life, public opinion be damned.
I flirted with boys, kissed five or six or 10, fell in love with one. I shamelessly danced with whoever would dance at The Club on Thursday nights, when ladies got in free and the bar was lined with already opened beer bottles. “Waiting for Mr. Right. Meanwhile, having fun with all the wrong ones” was emblazoned on my favorite can huggie.
Without shame, I discussed my virginity and the reasons for it. And like Garth, I swore I’d never compromise. Then one spring night sophomore year, I nearly convinced myself otherwise. After weeks of flirtation between Will and me, I climbed the stairs to his room, unsure whether he’d follow. He did. After quiet conversation, he asked me to come sit next to him on the bed. I did. My lord, he was the most gorgeous boy I’d ever seen—pale blue-gray eyes, close-cropped brown hair, tall and tan. We kissed. He had the softest lips. Things progressed. I panicked and told him I couldn’t. He said he understood. I kissed his cheek and walked the few steps to my apartment. I was afraid, and I knew he didn’t feel for me what I felt for him. Later that week, I wished I’d been brave enough to take the leap anyway. It’s true: You regret the things you DIDN’T do.
Sure, a few of my journal entries will never see the outside of the lock box; however, I’m not ashamed of anything I did then. I shamelessly cast off the notion that I had to be someone else’s idea of good.
I have a fuzzy memory of drunkenly asking our friend, Mark, if he thought Jake knew what he meant to me. It was a few months after Jake had died. “If Tomorrow Never Comes” was playing in the background. “He did,” Mark said to console me. “I’m sure he did.”
This song makes me reflect on words left unsaid, everything I wanted to tell my partners-in-crime, my crushes, my teammates but never did. I don’t want to live with the regrets any more, so here goes: I love you. Every one of you. Even if my love is unrequited. Even if you don’t remember a thing I’ve written about. Even if you wish I’d left it all in Fayette. Thank you for the late-night card games, for making sure I was safe after a crazy night, for your patience, for teaching me that everything is not a big deal, for listening, for holding me when I cried, for paying attention. As crazy as it sounds, I remember it all. And I love and miss you all.
I flip through my fading photos and wonder how everyone’s life turned out. Are you happy? Do you remember me? Would you go back for a week or two to when we were young, beautiful, and full of promise? Some days I catch a glimpse of that younger self in the mirror. I still see it in the few friends I’ve been lucky enough to reconnect with in real life.
For a long time, I hated Garth’s music: I didn’t want to remember. It hurt too much because I knew I’d never again see friends I was closest to then. Now I’m grateful that these songs let me relive those days, 4 minutes and 19 seconds at a time. And on the rare occasion when I see an old friend, I recall all the words from 1992, when Garth ruled the radio waves and we ruled the world.
Tiffani Hill-Patterson is a former sportswriter and copy editor. She played softball in college and still considers herself an athlete. She’s mom to a bionic teen (really!) and is working on more essays and trying fiction. Contact her at [email protected] or visit http://tiffanihillpatterson.com.