Athens, GA - October 5, 1991
By the time they make the ten-minute walk from the 40 Watt back to Peter’s house, all Krist can talk about is how much good booze he deserves for catching his bass multiple times, and Kurt has stopped grumbling about how bad the sound was. He’d perked up enough to say “for a college town, they sure have a lot of dumbasses,” Dave is about to say that college amplifies the dumbass factor via reduced supervision when Peter throws open the door and welcomes them into his well-lit, vaguely pastoral home. The scent of whiskey and whatever wood is burning in the fireplace make Dave feel as comfortable as he’s felt while on the road in a long while.
He gets most of the way into the living room before his stomach drops like he’s plunged into freezing water. The rest of R.E.M. is lounging on various chairs and couches, drinking whiskey and laughing, and his gaze flits between them--Mike, Bill, and sitting in the corner of the furthest sofa with his arms curled around his bent knees, Michael. He’s wearing a black pageboy hat askew over his hair, and his fingers are twitching, looking like they’re itching for a cigarette or something else to occupy them.
“Bet all that drumming made you thirsty—drink up.” Peter presses a whiskey into his hand, and he finds himself on the sofa next to Michael. He can’t figure out why he feels so nervous, though his brain helpfully points out that 1. He’s on a couch next to one of the masterminds behind a band that is becoming more universally adored by the day, and 2. Michael has the most intensely beautiful eyes he’s seen in a long time.
His brain further supplies the two facts that he remembers about Michael--one, his band has just released the best-selling album of their career, and two, he’d walked out of an interview on live television when asked about the presence of a tattoo of the name of the person who was allegedly the other half of his soul. He thinks maybe the record is the safer place to start. He takes a swig of whiskey and says, “Your voice sounds great on that new record--Half a World Away is beautiful.” He means what he says, and Michael must be able to tell, because he untucks himself from the ball of limbs he’s been curled into and says, his voice surprisingly soft and deep, “Thanks, I really appreciate that. I guess this one is a little heavy on the emotional wailing.”
Dave grins; he’s glad Michael knows how to make fun of himself. The room settles into an easy-going haze, aided by some high-quality pot Mike had acquired from a friend in California. The peace was broken only by what seemed to be a deeply entrenched DJ war between Peter and all of his bandmates. “Fuck you all, this is what we’re listening to.” Peter grumbles after a chorus of protest drowned out the Freddy King record he had put on. He manages to make walking across the room to load the tape deck look like a forced march (“I swear, he’s more theatrical than I am,” Michael mutters, and Dave can’t help laughing) and puts in a mixtape that he made sure to announce was called “Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back to the Party.”
Dave cranes his neck to get a glimpse of the tracklisting, which partially ran:
The Clash - This Is Radio Clash
David Bowie - Modern Love
Devo - Girl U Want
Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime
Roxy Music -
Depeche Mode - Route 66/Behind the Wheel
Dave leans his head back against the sofa, letting the music and the high settle into his body with syrupy warmth. Peter pulls Michael aside to have an animated conversation in the corner that ended with Peter swaying to the middle of the room to announce a game. Mike calls out a cheeky request for “King of the Road”, which they all were famously too smashed to remember recording. Peter pointedly ignores him with the practiced ease that comes with being a band for more than a decade. “This is a new game Michael and I just thought up. You pair up and write the name of someone you’ve gotten with. If you and your partner match, you have to make out.” This announcement is met with disbelieving yells and crude gesticulations from Krist. “Additionally,” Peter holds up an imperious finger, “If you and your partner match, the rest of us get to pick one piece of clothing for each of you to remove.”
“You’re enjoying this--ever thought of being a teacher, Mr. Buck?” Bill quips from where he’s lounging on a couch. Peter flips him off as he sits back down. Michael hands out scraps of paper, and they pair up. Dave chews his pencil, thinking about Mia from high school, who was tall and gorgeous and let him play punk tapes in the car. He writes her name down.
The first name Michael writes down is Kate. “Not just any Kate,” Mike chimes in with a knowing grin, “Kate Pierson of the world-famous B-52s.” Dave joins in the awed exclamations that follow this announcement. “What can I say?” Michael murmurs, though the intensity in his eyes belies his playful tone, “I’ve always had a thing for redheads.”
“You know, she just did a song with Iggy Pop.” Krist has that look in his eye that Dave knows; it means Krist is about to say something very silly or very profound, or possibly both. “You’re one degree away from fucking Iggy Pop, dude!”
They play a couple more relatively uneventful rounds. Dave holds his paper up for round three. He’d put Kathleen’s name down, mostly because he misses the cool green quiet of Washington state. And, he reflects further, because of how beautiful she was when she let the music move through her in a howling wave of fury onstage. And because she could carry on brilliantly insightful conversations while they fucked. Even half her brain was miles ahead of him in so many ways. “That’s not just any Kathleen,” Kurt put in helpfully, “That’s Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, and if you don’t know them, get ready to be educated.” He rammed their tape in Peter’s cassette player and shrieking guitar filled the room as they started the next round.
Dave reaches back over the last year of playing shows, and he remembers Casey, the short, strongly built badass drummer for a punk band who opened for them in Eugene, Oregon. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her the whole night; they’d watched each other’s sets with an admiration so deep it was almost palpable, hanging between the kit and the side of the makeshift stage.
Krist threw his bass one last time, Kurt leaned into a final agonized howl and threw himself at Dave, and they staggered off into the wings. Dave found Casey inside of thirty seconds and she hauled him into the girls’ room, where they fucked against the wall while Lindsey, the singer, yelled at them to hurry the fuck up.
Dave shakes his head, bringing himself back to the couch in Peter’s living room, and scribbles Casey’s name. One glance at Michael tells Dave he is reliving something similar, and he hasn’t even written a name down. “30 seconds!” Peter is taking his role as emcee very seriously. Michael jumps visibly and gets a name written just as the music is switched off and they all stand up to share once again.
“All right you clowns, slips up in 3,2,1…” Dave catches sight of the name Casey in Michael’s rushed handwriting, and his hands are already shaking as he holds his own slip up for the guys to squint at. The whole room goes quiet for a beat before Krist wolf whistles and Peter yells “Them’s the rules, boys!” Dave tries to smile reassuringly down at Michael, who is all wide eyes and contracted muscles. He looks like he might bolt.
Dave leans in, not for the kiss yet, but to murmur, “It’s all right. Ignore all these other jackasses. I’m going to put my hand on your neck, okay?” He waits a beat, and Michael nods, and Dave can see him swallowing. Somewhere in the back of his head he’s reminding himself that Michael is several years older than he is, and wondering why he seems so nervous, but he pushes those thoughts aside. Michael’s skin is warm and slightly sweaty beneath his palms, and he takes a deep breath to steady himself before he asks “You ready?” soft enough that only Michael can hear him. He nods almost imperceptibly and Dave leans in, and when their lips meet, cliche though it may be, Dave sees fireworks behind his eyelids and feels heat curl unmistakably in his belly. He clutches Michael’s shoulder more tightly in case his knees give out, and they separate, both breathing hard. The entire room erupts, Krist demands that they take their shirts off, and Michael shrugs out of his white t-shirt before ducking under Dave’s arm to retreat to the bathroom.
The game goes on for another couple rounds after that, but Dave is thoroughly distracted, still tasting Michael on his lips, thinking of his protruding shoulderblades and wondering where he has gone. He reaches up to absently run his fingers over the letters of his tattoo behind his ear. The Georgia night sweeps, sticky and warm and inviting, through Peter’s open window, and it’s with genuine relief in his voice that Dave cheers as Kurt and Krist hold up their slips, both with each other’s names on them, and make out with enthusiastic abandon. Dave gets up and goes out onto the porch, and he nearly misses Michael, standing in the grass beneath the porch, his lithe form little more than a shadow.
Dave clears his throat and taps a random rhythm against the porch railing, more to alert Michael to his presence than anything else. “Sorry for scaring you off at your own party,” he says, and Michael turns to face him. Dave is once again struck by the intensity of his gaze.
“It’s more a party for you young clowns,” Michael’s voice is irresistibly low and lilting, and Dave is already longing to chase his voice back into his mouth with his own heated breaths. “We’ve had enough parties to last us a lifetime.”
“Well, in that case,” Dave sees an opening and dives for it, “we can escape the party on that porch swing.” Michael chuckles and lunges back up onto the porch, and before Dave can get himself settled Michael is sprawling himself out, his warm body pressing delightfully against Dave’s.
“Ugh, dude, it’s too hot for this,” Dave bats at his shoulders with feigned annoyance. Michael looks up at him, mouth all wicked curves, and Dave is about to duck his head and catch his lips when Peter crashes through the front door, fuming over his shoulder, “The Clash are a bunch of overinflated egos who couldn’t trace the causes and effects of a political movement if someone gave them a connect the dots. You’re just wrong on this one, Krist!”
“Dammit, Buck,” Michael hasn’t moved from his position on Dave’s chest. “We’re trying to sleep out here.” His affect is comically flat, and he looks up and winks at Dave, who feels his stomach flip.
He drifts off, his mind full of questions, first among them, why had he gotten so easily tangled up with this intense, quiet human, and why did he long to become even more wrapped up in his spell under the Georgia moon?