Authors: Josh Farrar
For Chris Daddio
You’d never guess it now, but I used to be a rock star.
And I don’t mean that my mom or dad gave me a high five and called me a “total rock star” after I won a spelling bee or something. I mean, I was a
rock star, the bassist of Egg Mountain, the most popular kid band in New York. We played to packed clubs all over the city, did interviews, and posed for local magazine spreads. Strangers approached us on the street, gushing praise. Sure, our fan base was mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but I knew we were on the verge of making it big. How? Well, for one, we were starting to get e-mails from all over the country, even from overseas, from people who had heard us on the Internet. Also, people from record labels had started to sniff around, asking us what our plans for the future were. But mostly, I knew we were going to be rock stars when my favorite bass player and number one rock ’n’ roll idol, Satomi Matsuzaki of Deerhoof, asked
, Annabelle Cabrera, for an autograph. I was living the dream.
But now, at age twelve, I was a has-been. I hadn’t been on a stage in over three months. My dream was dead.
I was lying on my bed in a crazy-hot loft apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, trying to pretend that my nine-year-old brother’s snoring wasn’t about to make me scream like an insane person. Rhode Island! The whole state’s about as big as a guitar pick, and I was stuck in it for good. So I lay there, sweating in the sticky summer heat, trying to comfort myself with my best memories. I put the fan on high, listened to the Egg Mountain playlist on my iPod, and tried to live the good parts all over again. You could say I was trying to press the rewind button on my entire life.
Like the time I strapped on Satomi, my trusty
8 Ibanez Roadster—the beat-up but reliable bass guitar given to me by my dad on my eighth birthday and which I’d immediately named after Satomi Matsuzaki—and prepared to walk onto Central Park SummerStage with the other members of Egg Mountain. Ronaldo on vocals and rhythm guitar. Dakota on drums. Fast Eddie Amatruda playing lead. We were opening for Deerhoof, one of the only worthwhile bands left on the planet. The
Satomi would be looking on, and three thousand people were in the audience, waiting to see if we could pull off our most high-profile gig ever.
I’ll admit it. I was freaking out. I was supposed to sing lead on the first song, “Climbing the Egg,” and I could barely breathe. I felt like somebody had sewn my throat shut.
Ronaldo stood behind the drum kit and called us over. These were our last moments together before we would face our biggest audience ever. We stood in a circle and put our hands together, like a football team before
. I made sure my hand didn’t quite touch the others—my palms were sweating like crazy. I leaned on Fast Eddie, not out of camaraderie but because I thought I was about to pass out.
“This is it, you guys,” said Ronaldo. “Everything we’ve been working on for a year comes down to the next thirty-five minutes. This is the biggest stage we’ve ever played. Don’t forget this night. Make it count.”
“Yeah!” Eddie and Dakota cried while I lip-synched.
We raised our arms in unison, and I looked straight up, catching a view of the darkening sky. Then, as we walked onstage, I couldn’t take my eyes off the nightscape above us. I gazed up at a million stars just starting to appear and felt so tiny. Then the spotlights came on and hit me right in the face. I was blinded, absolutely frozen.
“Annabelle,” Ronaldo whispered. “You okay?”
I used my hand for a visor and looked for family and friends in the crowd. But all I could see was white light pounding into my brain.
“Earth to Annabelle Cabrera?” Ronaldo said. “Come on, you can do this. It’s just like any other gig.” He put his hands on my shoulders and gave them a quick squeeze, tilting his head down to meet my eyes. “You cool?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said.
And I was. Just like that, I was fine. The crowd didn’t matter; the lights didn’t matter. Not even having my rock ’n’ roll idol six feet away and scrutinizing my every move mattered. Only the music did. Only Egg Mountain. I looked down at Satomi and let my hand glide along her shiny frets. Then I checked my effects pedals, tapping them one by one with my right toe. Each time, a satisfying click resonated through the sole of my Chuck Taylor low-top. I breathed deeply once, then twice. I was ready.
Ronaldo went to his mic, coolly fired off the count, and nodded to me. I stepped up to my mic and sang the first two verses. I barely recognized my voice coming through the huge PA speakers, but when I looked out into the crowd, people were way into it, their heads bouncing up and down in time. Then Ronaldo joined me to scream out the chorus.
I’m climbin’ the egg
I’m fightin’ a nasty case of nerves
I’m hikin’ my way along the white curve
I’m climbin’ the egg
On my way to you
Dakota twirled his sticks in the air, landing with a thud on the downbeat. Fast Eddie’s blistering guitar leads soared above us. I looked into the crowd. Kids pounded their fists on the stage and moshed in the pit. Adults’ heads snapped back and forth as they played air guitar like teen metalheads. The audience sang along to every word.
I looked at Ronaldo. All we could do was throw our heads back and laugh. It was easily the greatest moment of my life so far. I was a rock star. And I was still two months shy of my twelfth birthday.
Okay, so maybe “rock star” is pushing it a little.
rock star? A bassist with a decent voice who happened to join a band at the moment they were about to explode? Whatever. But before my parents decided to drag me to this ridiculous city,
0 miles away from my band, my grandmother, and everything I’d ever loved, I couldn’t have imagined a better life. And I had no idea how hard it would be, how much I’d have to go through, to get it all back.
Four months after the SummerStage concert, I stood on my tiptoes and scanned the pack of kids flooding through the halls, trying to find my new bandmates. It was my first day at Federal Hill Middle School, in Providence. I knew no one, and no one knew or noticed me. But that was only natural. I didn’t expect a welcoming committee to run up and shower me with confetti and kisses. This was middle school, and I was new. I remembered a kid from my old school, D’Shawn Williams, who had been new in fifth grade. Nobody had talked to him—I mean, not a word—for the first six weeks of school, but by the end of the year he was one of the most popular kids in our class. So I expected to be ignored at first and told myself it wouldn’t last long. Or so I thought.
I hooked my thumbs under the straps of the gig bag—basically a backpack specially made for a bass, an accessory that screams
to some but
to people who know better—which held Satomi and followed the signs to the registrar’s office.
“Annabelle Cabrera,” I said to a little bald man sitting behind a desk. “Sixth grade.”
“You’d better hurry,” he said. He crinkled his nose, like there was a bad smell in the air. “Your math class starts in three minutes.”
“Where’s my homeroom?”
“Sixth graders don’t have homerooms. You need to get to room
7. Better run.”
I didn’t run. I didn’t want to be out of breath.
Rock stars are never out of breath.
I wasn’t the only one still in the hall. Everyone at Federal Hill was juicing the last three minutes of summer. Two gum-snapping, flat-ironed girls stood chatting in front of the activities board. Tight-fitting tank tops, acid-wash denim skirts. I knew girls like this back in Brooklyn. Plenty of them. They spent more time on hair than homework. Their brains were not the part of their bodies they wanted to develop. They had to be eighth graders, dressed like that.
“Fool said what?” one said. “Unbelievable.”
The girls turned their heads as a bunch of boys raced down the hall, pushing people over without even noticing. Seventh graders, probably. Big, and not too bright. I tried to write song lyrics about them in my head, but I couldn’t come up with anything but a title: “Dumb Puppies.”
Or something like that. I had just started writing songs, and I wasn’t great at it yet. In the meantime I just wanted these guys to pass me by without pushing me over. I didn’t want to get knocked down, especially on my first day.
The flat-ironed girls ignored the dumb-puppy show. They rolled their eyes like annoyed older sisters and went back to what they were talking about. Who wants a dumb puppy for a boyfriend anyway? Maybe they were smarter than they seemed.
My first few looks at Federal Hill had been disappointing. I had thought Providence would be different from Brooklyn. It’s a small town, but it has a big college and a wacky art school. I figured there’d be lots of kids into weird movies and excellent music. But where were they? I was surrounded by Latin American princesses and wannabe reggaeton thugs, just like at home. Where were all the rockers?
After math, on my way to the art room, I noticed a big, burly dude leaning against a locker. He wore a rock band T-shirt, and a long wallet chain hung from his belt loop, dangling against black jeans. Definitely a rocker.
I started to talk myself through what to do:
Just walk right up to him and calmly tell him that you’re starting a band
. It sounded easy enough. But I wasn’t ready, I guess, so I hung back and checked him out. The guy was huge and mean-looking, with loads of dark curly hair. He was wearing a Mastodon T-shirt. I knew Mastodon and they weren’t really my thing—too metal, too crazy, just too much. The shirt showed Bigfoot feasting on a helpless deer. Lovely.
I watched as Curly Burly pushed a kid up against a locker. Then CB riffled through the little guy’s sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. The kid was blond and so tiny he looked like a fifth grader who had skipped half the grades in elementary school. He was quiet as the bully took his cash, not resisting one bit—this was definitely a scene that had taken place many times before. Maybe every day.
Then Curly Burly turned to leave, but stopped right in front of me and smirked. Perfect.
“The Beatles, huh?” he said, nodding at my hoodie. “Lame.”
“No, they’re not,” I said before my brain could kick in.
“What did you say to me, girl?”
“The Beatles are not lame,” I said, crossing my arms.
If he wanted an excuse to turn me into mush, I had just handed it to him.
But he just laughed. “In the future, no eye contact,” he said, purposely brushing my shoulder as he passed me, knocking me a couple inches back on my heels. “Got it?”
I tried not to think about Curly Burly as he walked away. So there was an unwritten rule that little kids had to give him their cash and nobody was allowed to look him in the eye. Big deal. It was stupid to have talked back to him, but I had done it and, hopefully, had gotten away with it. I might have just painted a future target sign on my own back, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t at Federal Hill to make friends. I was there to put together my band. So Curly Burly could go about his business, and I’d go about mine.
Rock stars don’t scare
I mostly daydreamed my way through art. It didn’t matter—nothing happens on the first day of school. It’s just introductions and hopeful teacher talk. By the third week, they usually don’t sound so hopeful anymore.
I tried to come up with a band formation plan. Should I post a sign? Walk up to any kid with a rock band T-shirt and tell him I wanted to take over the world with my music? The incident with Curly Burly had shown me that was not the way to go. Some people with rock band T-shirts are not that friendly.
How could I make myself known in Providence without coming on too strong? How could I appear incredibly cool without trying too hard? I was less than five feet tall and weighed eighty-eight pounds. I was beyond invisible. How could I get noticed?
I imagined myself standing on a table at lunchtime with Satomi and a massive
0-watt amp, cranking out heavy riffs while announcing in song that I was forming a band. Oh my God, I would get laughed out of the building! Terminated. Slaughtered.
I pulled out my notebook and wrote:
Band Formation Plan
by Annabelle Cabrera
1. Get the lay of the land. Observe. See how things work here. Don’t stare at people too obviously. Hopefully don’t get beaten up or made fun of.
2. Meet people. Musician people. Rockers.
3. Casually, coolly, tell them that I am starting a band.
4. Let the rockin’ begin: club dates, recordings, interviews, photo shoots, videos, fame, etc.
English class. One more period before lunch. Forty-five minutes before I could see how things really worked at Federal Hill. I was getting fidgety, so I practiced secret bass scales under my desk while a short, dark man with tortoiseshell glasses introduced himself.
“I am Mr. Venketaswami, and I will be instructing you in English this year,” he said in a slow, melodic Indian accent. He wore a wine red button-down shirt with a very small collar and a navy crewneck sweater. “Don’t worry, you will not be tested on the spelling and pronunciation of my surname. You may call me Mr. V.”
He waited for laughter. None came.
“Today we will start off with a bit of state-imposed activity.” Mr. V smiled peacefully. “I will be assessing your reading fluency by having you read some charming passages aloud. You will be reading one at a time, so please entertain yourselves—silently—while you wait your turn.”
Groans from the three kids who were actually listening.
I couldn’t figure Mr. V out. His actual words were super serious, but his eyes sparkled while he spoke them. He seemed to be laughing inside, as if the test were a secret joke he was sharing with us. Walking slowly and deliberately through the rows of desks, he carried a roster in his left hand and a tiny chair, which could have belonged to a first grader, in his right. He spent less than three minutes with each kid, quietly making his way around the classroom in alphabetical order. “I should have had you sit in neat rows, from A to Z,” he said. “Oh well, at least I am getting my exercise.”
It didn’t take him long to reach the C’s. “Annabelle Cabrera?” Mr. V asked gently, sliding his baby chair alongside me. Unbelievably, he seemed to fit in it quite comfortably. The man’s hips must have been slimmer than mine. And I have no hips.
“I hope you might enjoy this little assessment. I know I will enjoy hearing the passages for the fourth time in the last five minutes.” He smirked, and I smiled back. He was
making fun of this test. I grabbed the sheet of paper he handed me. “Just read aloud in your natural voice, easy as pie,” he said. “Easy as pie. What an odd phrase this is. What is so easy about pie? It is very
to make a pie. Difficult, indeed … please excuse me, Ms. Cabrera. My mind wanders. Let’s begin with the passages.”
There wasn’t much to read, just a couple short paragraphs. It didn’t look hard. I started:
Many people use the expression “Money makes the world go ’round.” While money does not physically make Earth rotate around the sun, money is an important tool that human beings use to exchange goods and services.
Who had written this thing? Money doesn’t physically make Earth rotate around the sun? Oh boy. Were there random lonely people cranking out these reading passages in a basement somewhere while the rest of the world went about its business?