Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel
You have to see them live. It's more than just the music.
That's what my friends who were into The Grateful Dead would say whenever I told them I didn't understand their obsession with the group.
I never became a Dead Head but came to appreciate the point. There's something about a live event, being at a concert with thousands of other fanatics, that can elevate a performer beyond mere musician status.
I never would have imagined I'd end up following a singer as he toured the country, but that's what happened. I've spent months at a time devoting myself to a single purpose: driving to the next city to be wherever a concert would take place, sometimes getting in, sometimes just to be in the vicinity, content to listen to CDs in a parking lot or a field nearby.
That's what I did for Sting. For Lani and Sting anyway.
I saw Sting in person before Lani ever did. I sat in the cheap seats at Shea Stadium as a teenager when The Police rocked Synchronicity, but the energy from the group and the crowd easily overcame the physical distance.
I wasn't a big fan of Sting's solo work initially, but that probably was because I didn't want to like it. I didn't understand how you ended a group like The Police when they were the biggest and best band in the world. I didn't see Sting live after The Dream of the Blue Turtles and only went to MSG with some of my buds near the end of the ...Nothing Like the Sun tour because I wanted to hit Manhattan.
I spent the first half of the show drinking and scoping more than listening. I applauded most when Sting played a Police song or covered a Squeeze tune. Towards the end of the show, I took advantage of my friends' trips to the bathroom to slide beside a skinny girl who wore a tight t-shirt and a short, bouncy skirt.
"Hey," I said just before The Boss joined Sting on stage and a wave of "Bruuuuuuuce!" chants overtook the audience.
I joined the cheering and clapping but observed Lani stomping her feet in protest, her long brown hair flying about while she tried to match the vocal chords of 18,000 others by yelling in opposition: "Sting! Sting! Sting!"
That was the moment I became a Sting fan, not just a Police fan, and I saw the rest of the concert as she did. The highlight became not the oldies, not the covers, not even the songs Sting and Springsteen performed together, but the women from South America joining Sting on stage at the end of the evening, expressing themselves through dance for the disappeared. Not just for the poignant display but because Lani chose the moment to dance with me or into me. I swayed with her as tears slid down her cheeks.
When it was over, I found myself focused on the blue turtle on Lani's t-shirt. Her friend, a female of the same approximate age, may have thought I was gazing at Lani's small breasts, because she tapped Lani on the shoulder and pointed in the direction opposite to the one that my bros were calling me.
I leaned into her. "You in high school or college?"
"College freshman in a couple of weeks."
"Can I get your number?"
"Give me your ticket."
"Your ticket." She retrieved a pen from her handbag.
Lani wrote her name and number on my ticket before handing it back to me. Her fingers felt too light and frail to be human. More like chicken bones. I worried I would crush them if I closed my hand around them.
I called her a few days later, and we made plans to get together, but one of us—I can't say who—canceled at the last minute. We rescheduled, and the other person—I can't say why—did likewise. Then it was time for both of us to attend our respective schools some 3,000 miles apart. I entered my junior year at a small liberal arts college in New England, while Lani commenced her studies at a large state university on the West Coast.
"Why don't you write me?" she said when we realized we wouldn't see one another again for some time, if ever.
"Yeah, it'll be fun to get letters from a nice boy from Long Island. Plus, it'll be cheaper than calling long distance."
I waited a couple of weeks before I wrote Lani. It was a one-pager. I only knew we had one thing in common, so I told her "Message in a Bottle" was my favorite Police song and how I loved the video for "Synchronicity II." Then I may have lied and told her I liked Sting the soloist more than I did. But is a fib still a lie if it eventually comes true?
I must have also said "Englishman in New York" was my favorite song off of ...Nothing Like the Sun because I received a package from Lani the following week containing not just a ten-page letter but a t-shirt depicting Sting taking a bow in a city street with a fiddle in his hand and that song title. Lani explained she'd liked The Police a little but she became a huge fan of Sting as a solo artist because of the lyrics to his songs, his involvement with Amnesty International, and his decision to form a band consisting of almost entirely black musicians. She then provided her thoughts on every one of Sting's solo songs. The one I recall most was her account of "They Dance Alone." She opined that its most impressive feat was capturing so many different emotions. The song began sad as the women—mothers, wives, daughters, sisters—danced for their missing sons, husbands, fathers, brothers. It became angry and turned upon the Chilean dictator and presciently noted he would someday answer for his crimes. But it ended happily, with hope, and the women danced the way we humans were meant to dance—in celebration of life, as part of a community of friends and loved ones.
Lani and I didn't see one another again until winter break, but by then I think we knew each other pretty well after sending letters back and forth. I probably knew her better since hers were always ten times longer than mine and she seemed to write hers the day mine arrived, but maybe my shorter, delayed missives told her something about me.
We went from never having been on a date to being a couple really quickly that December. Whenever we visited each other's room in our respective parents' homes, Sting always seemed to be on in the background, either as a soloist or with Stewart and Andy.
I kept to myself that I especially liked Sting's darker songs like "King of Pain" and "O My God," but I was quick to point out how I enjoyed his self-mocking end to "Love Is the Seventh Wave." I'm sure I'm not the only fan who smiles whenever Sting references earlier lyrics in later songs. It feels like you're privy to an ongoing, inside joke.
Lani developed a liking for a number of Police songs, especially "Driven to Tears" and "Invisible Sun," while I acknowledged Sting's covers of "Shadows in the Rain" and "Bring on the Night" were improvements over the original versions he'd produced as a member of The Police.
For the next couple of years we dated the way college students date, which is to say simultaneously more casually and more seriously than fully emancipated adults. We partied and played like nothing else mattered, but we also discussed the lyrics of Sting and the state of the world highlighted in songs like "Russians" and "We Work the Black Seam" as if only the two of us and he grasped the problems and were committed to see them change.
Time flew. We were happy being together except when we were apart for lengthy periods of time.
I didn't know what to make of Sting's third album when I first heard it. I so wanted to like it. I thought if Sting released a great CD, I could love it as much as I was sure Lani would, and this would further our relationship. But I found something lacking.
There didn't seem to be any socially conscious songs or fun songs or songs with a hook. All the songs seemed sad. Even the initial release, "All This Time," concerned his father's passing. I liked the title track best, especially for its repeating the lyrics of "Island of Souls" near its end, but I eventually decided I needed to listen to the CD with Lani to better evaluate.
I couldn't right away. I was living at home, working as a consultant, trying to decide whether I wanted to continue working or return to graduate school before making a more permanent housing decision. I also wasn't sure where Lani and I stood or were headed. I figured we'd talk about all these things—our relationship, career paths, and Sting—after she completed finals and returned home for winter break.
My plans, to the extent my musings could be so generously described, never materialized as I envisioned. While Lani was in the middle of her exams, her father died. He had a heart attack while riding the train home from work and departed this world at some point along the Main/Bergen County Line prior to his Ridgewood stop.
Mr. Callahan never appeared to be a candidate for an early grave. He was tall and thin, a former shooting guard in college and frequent marathon runner afterward. He ate right, had a loving family and a decent income, and carried himself with a gentle and genial disposition. He died young just the same.
Who knows what would have happened to us had Lani not lost the man she loved most in the world at such a young age? She likes to say the reason her father died is so she could have the family she has now: husband, daughter, son, dog. I don't understand why one had to happen for the other to result. Or how by chance Sting happened to have experienced a loss just prior to that time and used his artistic talents to process his grief and help us understand the frailty of human existence.
I'd never lost anyone, let alone anyone close to me, so I didn't know how to help Lani or even what to say to my girlfriend. I was by her side most of the time she was home for break, but we hardly said a word to each other. I'm sorry, so sorry. That was about it.
Lani didn't write nearly as frequently or voluminously when she returned to campus. I thought maybe this meant we were through. Done in by an event beyond my control. I needed to know for certain, so I bought tickets to Sting's first show on The Soul Cages tour, which happened to be in Lani's college's city, and flew out to surprise her.
Lani had previously been extraordinarily neat, but upon arriving, I saw clothes and used tissues scattered across the floor and pizza boxes stacked five high in her room.
"We're worried about roaches," one of her roomies told me in the hallway right before she used Lani's trip to the bathroom to sneak inside and grab an armful of refuse.
I worried about Lani not going to class, not leaving her room, at all. She hadn't completed her final exams from the previous semester or attended any of the classes in which she was enrolled for the spring semester. I didn't think I had any chance of convincing her to try to have fun at a Sting concert but eventually achieved half of my goal: she agreed to go but then sported tears the entire evening, especially when Sting sang "All This Time" and "Why Should I Cry For You."
I don't recall much else, other than feeling useless. I worried I'd made a terrible mistake in a clumsy attempt to be helpful.
Lani sat quietly during most of our drive back after the concert. I'd almost forgotten she was with me in her roommate's car until I felt her hand grab my leg. "Thanks, Wick."
I glanced over and couldn't see her well through the darkness but imagined dried streaks lining her face.
"You know what I want to do?"
I had no idea what she would say and could have made a thousand guesses without predicting what she was about to tell me.
"Tour with Sting."
I turned my head and stared for quite a long time, having forgotten where I was, what I was doing. Luckily, it was almost midnight and the road largely unoccupied.
"I'll take the rest of the year off from school. You don't need that stupid job."
That's how it happened. How we first decided to travel the US and follow Sting wherever he played. Not that the decision was really made at that moment. I was the only child of working class parents who dreamed of a better future and a professional life for their son. The plan to see those dreams achieved did not include spending a year following a middle-aged pop star on tour. I was supposed to do extraordinary things, not things out of the ordinary.
Whatever my political leanings may have been, I dressed and acted conservatively for the most part. I made sure the hair atop my head was cut short and on my face removed daily. Clothes were folded and hung to remain neat, if not actually pressed, and their color and style did not involve anything flamboyant, anything to draw attention to their wearer.
I needed a day or two. As it turned out, the distance from home made the decision easier. I only had to make a call and answer a couple in return. I didn't have to face them in person.
Lani's Mom was more understanding. Partly because her worldview permitted her to be open to all sorts of opportunities apart from the norm. Partly because her own grief clouded her judgment, I imagine.
I can't say why I agreed to go on tour. Maybe I was acting the part of the good boyfriend and loved Lani more than I knew at the time. Or maybe I realized I couldn't stand the consulting position I'd commenced six months earlier. Maybe I feared the life for which I'd been prepared would come to fruition. Or maybe I wanted to rebel and Sting, of all people, gave me the chance to do just that.
Lani and I purchased an old Chevy Nova to transport us along our tour. It was cheap, and the dealer claimed it was reliable. In those days, it wasn't as easy as it is now to verify or refute such claims.
I'd saved some money by living at home while working for six months, so it wasn't until our second night in Los Angeles, standing beside Lani as she practically sobbed through the fourth straight show, that I realized our trip wouldn't last long if we went to concerts and stayed in hotels every night, even if we chose the cheapest seats and rooms at places with numerals in their names.
My education in the classroom hadn't prepared me for making important life decisions, but the tour was saved and history, at least the small personal kind, was preserved through the intervention of two women who approached us as soon as the fourth show ended.
"I take it you recently lost someone, too." The woman who spoke appeared to be in her mid-30s. She wore a colorful, somewhat abstract Soul Cages t-shirt and jeans and was accompanied by another woman similar in appearance and attire.
"Our Mom." Both women shuffled closer and embraced Lani. In the midst of their hug, they waved me to join them for a group hug. "You're not alone."
"This whole tour is filled with grievers. I'm Rayna. This is my twin Alexandra."
"Is this your first show on the tour?" Alexandra asked.
"Fourth," I said while trying to mentally determine how to tell the two women apart.
The women separated from us to see if we were serious.
"We're doing the whole US tour," Lani said.
"If we don't run out of money," I added.
"Well, you can't go to all the shows," Rayna said. She looked at me like I was responsible. And an idiot.
Alexandra grabbed Lani's hand and held it between both of hers. "Our Mom was killed by a drunk driver."
"My Dad had a heart attack."
"How old?" Rayna asked.
I felt awkward standing nearby, both of my parents still among the living. "You guys come every night even if you don't get into the shows?"
"Of course. That's what this is all about. Sometimes we just meet as a group at some public place nearby. We play Soul Cages and other Sting CDs. Can't hear the actual show, but it's good to be close, you know?"
"I know exactly what you're saying," Lani said.
"Did you like Sting before this album and before..."
"He's been my favorite since Blue Turtles."
"How about you?"
Rayna and Alexandra were now alternating speaking so quickly, I'd lost track of who was whom.
"Sure, Zenyatta at least."
"Oh, you're a Police man."
I was not in the presence of those receptive to humor, and Rayna and Alexandra promptly led Lani away from me. I didn't think I was invited, so I returned to our car, where I was met by a group of ten about an hour later.
They examined me and my car from a distance. I thought they were silently questioning my right to take part in what appeared to be an exclusive ritual, but after a few moments a middle-aged man and slightly younger woman broke from the pack and approached me.
"I take it you're the comforting boyfriend," the guy with two days worth of stubble said.
"I've been called worse."
"It's okay. We're the companions as well." The woman didn't carry a smile like the guy. "It's good to have another."
"You might feel like an outsider at times, but they're all good people. You'll like them."
The woman smirked and looked about as if she wanted to leave. "As long as you like Sting."
Our fellow Sting tourists, people I mentally referred to as Gordos, helped us better prepare for the rest of the tour. After a couple more shows in LA, we'd travel to Chicago, then New York, for multiple shows in both cities before heading south for a series of one-nighters. Even as we added additional members along the way, Lani remained the youngest member of the tour, and the group especially looked out for her. They gave us maps, food and drink; they reserved spots for us to park and rest; they offered us places to crash when they could; and they taught us how to set up email accounts and how to use this new method of communication, though most of the time we didn't have access to a computer.
We listened to Sting just outside arenas in Atlanta, Tampa, Miami, and Chapel Hill. When our not-so-reliable car broke down near Columbia, South Carolina, we had a number of a hotel to call using a pay phone so our friends knew where we were and could come to our aid.
Through it all, night after night, we played songs from Soul Cages and Sting's other solo albums. After a month, the group even considered me one of their own, and stopped yelling whenever I obtained control of the music and inevitably played Police songs, or at least Sting covers of Police songs. Maybe by then they recognized, whatever my shortcomings, I helped Lani, and whatever pain they felt, it was okay to find joy in life. After all, Sting did.
By the time the first leg of the tour came to an end on the West Coast, Lani and I had purchased a tent in which we often slept, but neither of us could do so after the last show in San Diego. Sting ended the tour at the Sports Arena with "Fragile" and all the Gordos knew that was exactly what we were.
After the show, we talked, we cried, we laughed, we danced, we drank, we smoked, we hugged, we kissed. Not everyone, not all things. Each community member did whatever was right for him or her. No judgments, no fights, no worries.
Lani and I didn't enter our tent until after 4:00 AM. I figured we'd fuck to cap the perfect ending to the tour. After all, we, like most others on the tour, fucked a lot. Maybe it was the music. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe it was the commitment to freedom.
For Lani, it usually was because she was angry or sad. I didn't care. I'd never had a regular partner before.
But she didn't want to the last night. She wasn't angry or sad. She sat cross-legged across from me, so I did the same. "I'm trying to figure out how to say this so it doesn't sound as bad as I think it will. This has been the worst time of my life, but it's also been the best."
I reached through the darkness and brushed her hair away from her face. She hadn't cut or styled it during the entire time we were on tour. She looked messier, more unkempt than she ever had prior to her Dad's passing. I loved the way she looked.
Lani pushed my chest not unlike the way she had scores of times while on tour. I fell back to let her take control, climb on top, but she simply laid her head on my chest. Although I felt myself becoming aroused, I sensed that wasn't what Lani wanted. Not then. When I realized she was falling asleep, I softly sang "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic."
"I love it when you sing."
Lani loved it when I sang, even though I was a terrible singer. Even though my singing was really no more than a soft whispering.
We discussed the past—mainly Lani's relationship with her father and our experiences on tour with Sting—for the first half of our cross-country ride home. The second half we discussed our future.
Lani had made it through her period of grieving, and now we both faced choices concerning schooling and jobs. We'd gone from long distance dating to traveling together and spending 24/7 with each other, with nothing in between. What would our relationship be going forward?
"I want us to be together," one of us said.
"I mean together together."
We were riding along a lightly trafficked road in Pennsylvania when I asked if we should turn around. "I could look for a job in California."
"No, I want to be here."
I knew where she meant. Lani changed schools; I got a different job that wasn't much different than the one I'd foregone; we moved into a small apartment in Jersey. It wasn't the life I'd been planning, but it seemed like it would be fantastic.
Soon we were happy in a different way. And unhappy in a different way. It's hard to return to the ordinary from the extraordinary, whether the extraordinary is good or bad.
We both grew anxious waiting for Sting's next CD. Not sure if that was primarily to hear the new music or because we knew a tour would follow.
Ten Summoner's Tales lacked both the sorrow of Soul Cages and the politically oriented songs of Blue Turtles and ...Nothing Like the Sun. Lani immediately became enamored with "Fields of Gold." I liked the opening riff of "She's Too Good For Me," the jazzy ending to "Love Is Stronger Than Justice," the tone of "Nothing 'Bout Me," and the sense of humor Sting expressed throughout the album.
I played the CD while I looked at the tour schedule on our oversized monitor. I needed something to look forward to, other than my upcoming enrollment in graduate school. Lani was set to complete her undergraduate degree, and we'd agreed I should enroll in a graduate program in statistics in the fall. Until then, I continued to do the consulting work I abhorred.
Lani placed her hands on my shoulders. "We should go see him."
"I know, I'm trying to pick out a show."
"No, like last time. Let's go on tour."
I craned my neck to see if she was serious. I heard my parents' voices inside my head telling me it was crazy to do so last time and would be insane to do it again. Lani walked around and straddled me in the chair. She kissed me as she had done many times when we were on tour and not nearly as frequently thereafter.
"It won't be the same." I offered as much resistance as I could muster, as I believed I was supposed to present. I also wanted to make sure Lani understood.
"I know. This time it'll be fun."
We did it right then and there. Without concern for the future, without precaution. We decided it was what we wanted to do. Just knowing we'd go on tour again filled us with excitement and purpose, hope, and longing.
Lani completed her requirements for her degree but didn't attend graduation. As a present to herself, she cut her hair short and dyed it to match the color of Sting's from his early Police days.
We joined Sting in Vegas where he was the supporting act for, among all people, The Grateful Dead. Rather than Gordos, we found Dead Heads at or near the Silver Bowl. They smoked and danced and smoked and played with footbags and smoked and welcomed us. But it wasn't the same.
The concerts that followed in Utah, Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana were all Sting but shared little in common with The Soul Cages tour. We expected to see old friends but only encountered a few. And they were only attending a single show. Maybe the formerly grief-stricken had recovered. Maybe life's commitments made a second tour impossible. Maybe now everyone listened to grunge.
Lani and I adjusted. We stayed in a hotel more often than our tent and never spent a night in our car. We relied more on each other and less on others. More often than not, we still didn't enter the arena, but that was okay. At almost every concert we made new friends—fans of Sting, young and old.
Initially it felt strange, scary, to be out on tour without our support, but after a couple of cities, Lani and I realized we didn't need our old friends. We could experience life and success on our own. We now had a laptop and much greater access to information via the Internet. At first, we partied, but after New Orleans, Lani said she wanted a break from drinking. I thought it was a momentary overreaction to too many Hurricanes. I should have known better.
We chose to visit the National Civil Rights Museum over Graceland while we were in Memphis and hiked Sawnee Mountain before seeing Sting in Atlanta. We completed the tour in late June as we'd began it—with Sting supporting The Grateful Dead—this time in the nation's capital.
By then, I suppose I knew but didn't want to acknowledge the truth. Lani was pregnant. To this day I don't know how or why. Had our method of birth control not worked? Had she forgotten to take it? Or had she wanted this outcome? I was too worried to ask at first and don't care to know now. Sometimes one is better off not knowing everything about a partner, even when completely committed to each other. So many years have passed, what would it matter?
We listened to Police and Sting CDs starting with Outlandos and alternating group and solo works in chronological order on our way home. By the end of our trip we'd convinced ourselves we were fully committed, or at least as fully committed as any 20-somethings can be, to each other.
We told each other the baby wouldn't change anything. I'd still go to grad school. She'd work as much as she could. We'd switch roles after I graduated.
We didn't realize life laughs at those who make such plans. Worse than all that, an implicit promise failed to come true. Life wasn't always wonderful. At times, it sucked.
One of us cheated on the other for reasons the person can't fully explain. The other reacted with more anger than either of us thought capable.
Sting released Mercury Falling in 1996. I wanted to find a favorite song right away. I wanted to find one Lani and I could agree should be our song off the album, but Lani refused to tell me which song she liked, and I couldn't decide. I first favored "Hounds of Winter," then "All Four Seasons." I feared it would become "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying." It was a dark time.
We were in such a bad place, we almost failed to see Sting on tour, but we made it to one of his last shows. He performed at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Although part of MSG, it's a much different venue than the Garden's auditorium. Smaller, much more intimate. But the name, the place, couldn't be ignored.
We sat next to each other without speaking, but halfway through the show one of us reached over and took the other's hand. The other never let go. By the time Sting played "I Was Brought to My Senses," I knew that was my song, and I had to fight back tears when Branford began wailing on the saxophone to close the number.
At home, alone, I'd thought the lyrics to be a little too simple, a little too cliche, but hearing the song live, it was different. I realized that was the point. And that I'd been a fucking idiot.
"Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot." Lani made a simple statement, unprompted, as we left the Theater. I knew. The song remains one of her all-time favorites.
Did Sting save us? I can't say. I don't think we were alone in realizing at some point in our lives we weren't the people we'd planned on being, didn't want to be. As best I can tell, many who reach this point never escape. Lani and I did. And we did so almost instantly after the Mercury Falling show. We'd been at sea, in a boat whipped about by the wind and the waves and had nearly been capsized by our incompetence and refusal to work together. Then suddenly there was calm. We looked at each other, and without a word being spoken, changed our course.
Before Brand New Day's release, our son Matthew was born; I was awarded my Ph.D.; Lani had completed her master's and begun working towards a Ph.D. of her own. We'd moved to Seattle.
Lani and I had met as children pretending to be adults. With two kids, a labrador and early stage careers, we had to tackle the roles in which we found ourselves and could only feign knowing what we were doing. We didn't play Sting's latest CD nearly as much as any of the earlier ones, though as soon as we bought it we sat together on the couch and listened to it from the first song to the last. When it was over, one of us simply said, "Desert Rose."
"Same for me."
It was a first.
We saw Sting when he came to The Gorge. That was enough. One night out, one night of fun. One night to remember, one night to imagine what lay ahead.
Then we went back to living our lives, separate and together.
I taught statistics to math geeks and those who dreamt of making a killing in the financial industry. Lani published extensively on the roles of social media and pop culture in contemporary politics.
One of us was a respected teacher, the other a leader in their field of study.
We were a man and a woman, a husband and wife, a father and mother. We watched in astonishment as two helpless beings became little persons, then individuals in their own right. Individuals with surely greater promise and goodness than ourselves.
Life, of course, reminded us about the limits of our control. 9/11 happened between the Brand New Day concert and the release of Sacred Love. Fortunately, Nicole and Matthew were too young to understand why Mom and Dad were so sad. A college classmate of one of us was killed; a childhood friend of the other was taken as well. We both lost whatever innocence we'd managed to retain for 30 years.
I bought Sacred Love on the day of its release, but Lani said she didn't have time to listen. When we finally played it, I thought "Inside" was a promising start but nothing else matched it. Lani just shook her head, tapped my hand, and left the room. I sat full of sadness for a minute before retrieving the CD and setting it aside.
We had our own tour by then. Publication deadlines. Conferences. Student meetings. Practices for soccer, basketball, softball, piano, saxophone. What little time this left was spent worrying about the direction of our lives and those of our children and the country, not listening to music.
We saw Sting in Minneapolis when both of us were there for a conference. Annie Lennox opened for him. I thought it was going to be our last concert, the last stop on tour, regardless whether there was another or not. I enjoyed the show, and it wouldn't have been a bad ending, but I'm glad there was more to come.
Years passed, and then something that had been rumored in 1985, 1986, and years later finally came to pass. The Police reunited and went on tour to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
Lani surprised me by expressing great excitement when she broke the news to me. I wasn't sure if that was due to her accumulating love of The Police over the years or her knowing I was about to display something akin to youthful exuberance for the first time in many years.
We went to three concerts—at Key Arena, Wrigley Field, and Fenway Park. We'd reached the state many would call successful. After years of being poor, poor with kids, and poor with kids and school obligations, we now both had graduate degrees, tenure, and comfortable salaries. We'd been fortunate for some time, but now we also had disposable income.
We took our children to the third show in Boston. They initially balked at the invitation. Concerts aren't for people your age, they said. What was implied is that even if some concerts are appropriate for old people like myself, they certainly aren't for both the young and the old at the same time. But when presented with the alternative of staying home, they elected to come along. At the concert, they danced, bounced and bobbed, despite themselves. I don't think I was ever as happy seeing Sting, but for the life of me I can't recall which songs he actually played that night. It didn't matter.
I felt I'd earned the right to play my compilation of "Roxanne" recordings while we drove south to see the grandparents early the next morning, but after the fourth, my daughter tapped my shoulder from the backseat. "Dad."
"What are you doing?"
"Driving. Listening to music."
"It's stuck on the same song."
"They're different versions, can't you tell?"
"It's still the same song."
"I like them." Through the rearview mirror, I saw my son banging away at some electronic device.
My daughter, who had been trying to read, waved her young adult novel at me. "What's special about the song?"
Good question. It hadn't ever been my favorite Police song because it was for so many of my friends when I was younger. Maybe just because it had been the first and people liked to say they discovered a band. Especially back in the day before MTV when groups existed locally for a long time before they could even hope of reaching national or international status.
I wasn't sure it had become my favorite Police song, but I think I looked forward to hearing "Roxanne" in concert more than any other Police or Sting song because Sting covered it so many ways. Fast, slow, jazzy, rocking, solo, as part of a group, with peppy buoyancy and with a melancholy tone.
I had ten recorded versions and probably heard twice as many live. That's a lot of variety for a three minute pop song about a prostitute.
"Let your Dad listen. It won't take long, and it'll make sure he stays awake while he drives."
I tapped Lani's leg. She had her eyes closed, and I'd assumed she had been asleep. Awake or not, my wife knew me well.
Long ago we realized there aren't guarantees in life, and later we refused to set expectations, other than that life will continue and things will happen. We've tried to enjoy the good times and persevere through the bad.
One of our kids excelled in school, the other struggled a little. One of them made friends easily, the other found this a bit of a challenge.
We decided we wanted to see Sting in a new venue during his Symphonicity tour. We chose the Hollywood Bowl. Our school years had just ended, so we asked Nicole and Matthew if they wanted to come. Our son immediately said yes, and our daughter probably felt compelled to do so.
I'm not sure why, but Lani thought it would be fun to look to see if there were still Gordos, so we went to the concert early. I thought perhaps we'd see a gathering of strangers in the distance and point. Like human observers of wild animals gathering around a watering hole. But Lani brought us close enough that someone, somehow, recognized us.
"Hey, it's Lani and Wick. They're touring with their kids."
I couldn't place the name but recognized the voice and then the face.
"We're not touring," Lani said as we got closer.
"Where do you live now?"
"Seattle," Matthew said.
"So far from home."
"Look at them. The son's the spitting image of the father, and she looks just like her Mom did." Another woman, quite overweight, whom I didn't recognize, joined us." Did you know your parents were the most romantic of all Sting's followers 20 years ago? It's no surprise they're still together."
Lani and I looked at one another. We had no idea where this was headed.
"All the guys—the young and the not-so-young—had a crush on your mother. And more than half the gals tried to tempt your Dad. Good thing neither of them fell for any of that, or you guys might not be here today."
"And they wouldn't do any drugs, either," the first woman said, causing both of them to laugh.
So we'd been square Gordos? Bold enough to travel about the US to follow a pop star, but so boring to think love and music was all we needed? It wasn't how I recalled thinking at the time, and I wasn't sure if I wouldn't have challenged the passive accusation had my kids not been present. Given the circumstances, I remained silent.
"What were they like then?" Nicole asked.
The familiar one approached my daughter and softened her tone. "Your Mom was really sad. Even more than the rest of us. But she was also big into love. She wouldn't have made it through without your Dad."
"Your Dad was such a mixed bag. In some ways, he was the most mature out of everyone. Aside from occasionally having one too many, he never did anything stupid. But he also was way too tense. He probably helped everyone the most, but he might have been helped the most, too. It's sad to say this, but I think he's lucky—we all are—that your Mom gave him an excuse to be on the road."
"So how about you guys?" I asked even though I didn't really care. I just wanted to change the focus of the conversation.
The heavier one shuffled behind her friend and threw her arms around her. "Us? We swapped our husbands. Yep. It wasn't working so we shook things up."
"But the swapping didn't work in the long run, either." The thinner one stared at me as if I would understand. "We're okay now."
"And we're happy to see how things turned out for you two. Are you going in or will you be out here with us?"
"We got tickets." Lani waved them about as proof.
"Stop by after."
"If we can," my wife said in a way that told everyone we would not.
"We should at least take a photo." The thin one made our family gather tight, then bent down in front of us with her companion and took the group selfie.
"Play some Ghost in the Machine," my son yelled when he saw me looking at my phone near our sound system. He'd barely taken his eyes off of the TV screen while he played video games.
"No, I'm reading. Just play Bring on the Night from start to finish. It's good background music." Nicole lay on the other section of our sofa.
Our open floor plan breeds togetherness, so I looked to Lani who stood at our kitchen island chopping vegetables.
"You know what I like," she said.
I tried to accommodate everyone. I had lots of Police/Sting playlists on my phone for just these occasions.
At the table, Matthew told us he was joining a band with some if his classmates. He plays a number of instruments but will play bass in the group.
Nicole responded by saying she was toying with the idea of going on tour.
"Why? With whom?" I asked.
"Mom was my age when she did it."
"She had a good reason. Who you going to follow?"
"That's not decided yet."
"Were you thinking of going alone?"
"Also not decided."
"For how long? Just the summer, I hope. If you decided to do this."
Nicole held her palms out towards her mother.
"Once again, that hasn't been decided." Lani answered this time while Nicole resumed eating.
"You knew about this?"
"As much as there is to know right now."
"I can't believe this. At least you and I had a reason and a specific artist to follow. And each other."
The kids left our home shortly after dinner. That wasn't unusual, except this time Lani forced them to go.
I sat on the sectional and attempted to process the prospects of having a son in a band and a daughter on tour following some unknown musician while foregoing her education.
My wife slid beside me, a glass of chardonnay in her hand. I touched her hair. She now dyes it black. The faculty and students think she's trying to convey an image, but I wonder if it's primarily just to cover the gray. "It'll be okay."
I knew it to be true. I also knew I would have eventually accepted it even without my wife's words. With smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other wonders of technology my family has yet to bring to my attention, it's easier to keep track of people wherever they are in the world, and harder to disappear.
I've also come to realize friends, jobs, and lots of other shit come and go over the years. Sometimes you have more of one, less of another. Sometimes things are better or worse, but then everything changes. Only one thing just goes: youth.
You have it once and then it's gone.
Not that that's entirely a bad thing. There are many elements of youth that should be jettisoned. But you might as well enjoy the good parts while you have the opportunity.
Lani grabbed the control that had been sitting on the coffee table before us. She played the first song off the first Police album.
"Next To You." Energetic, thumping, quasi-punk.
A young man's song, a young Sting's song. Much more my song than Lani's.
Lani knew that. I knew that's why she played it.
"Sing it," Lani said.
I did, though, true to form, I whispered as much as sang. But I knew Lani enjoyed whatever it was I did.
"You can choose the rest," she said when the song was over.
I did. I played another playlist. Softer, slower Sting songs.
Lani picked up our fawn pug puppy that had valiantly but unsuccessfully been trying to jump up and join us. She placed Bourbon near her feet and rested her head on my chest. Lani closed her eyes. I tried to listen to the music, but my mind wandered. I wondered what Sting was doing.
Did he sit at home with Trudie and think of me, of our family?
Surely not. He probably listened to music that he liked, that influenced him.
Or maybe he did think of us. Not my specific family. Maybe he thought about how as an artist he'd affected so many people like us, people he never met. Just as we thought about a man we'd never met, his music, and our tours with and without him.