I met him once. We were both in Calvin College’s Fieldhouse on a Saturday in the spring of 1995, my freshman year. I was there for a concert, and he was there to give the concert. His band, Hootie and the Blowfish, was opening for Toad the Wet Sprocket. I came for Hootie and after they sang their two (three?) songs, I left. That’s when I ran into him.
“Hootie! Hootie!” a bunch of undergrads were chanting as they swarmed him, shaking ticket stubs for him to sign.
I can’t blame the crowd for rushing him. It was an opportunity that wasn’t supposed to happen. I bet he snuck out to catch his breath, or maybe have a cigarette, when we six or seven spotted him. I admit I was intrigued, and that’s how I ended up standing as close to him as you are to your screen. I could see the threads in his flannel shirt, the rips in the bill of his baseball cap that guys back then worked so hard to obtain. One shoelace on his tan work boots was loose.
“My name’s not Hootie!” he scolded. “It’s Darius!”
There was silence for a moment, and I thought, “Huh. Darius. I had no idea.” Then everyone resumed, “Hootie! Hootie! Can you sign this? Can you sign this, please?”
Even before he sort of shouted at his fans, I noticed that he didn’t look all that happy. Now, full disclosure, I wasn’t terribly happy that night either. I’d just broken up with a rather serious high school boyfriend I’d had for a couple of years. It’s an old story—the kids are OK when the Chicago skyline is their backdrop, but then they go away to school and things aren’t the same. We’d come to that realization that night.
I can’t say I was sad or happy or even numb about it. I think I was making room for what college had in store for me. I think I was anticipating happiness, and I felt empty and excited at the same time. Maybe that’s what I recognized in Darius—he was expecting happiness and it wasn’t there. Not that night.
Fifteen years later I’m sitting on a baby quilt in the middle of the night with my younger daughter, Harper. Another old story—baby decides that 2-4:30 a.m. is just as fine a time to be awake as, say, 9-11:30 a.m. The parents have tried everything and are now taking turns getting rest and staying up with the baby. During my shift, Harper and I sat on the floor while I flipped through the channels on TV.
It was a difficult time. How to articulate that you love your baby’s Snuffleupagus eyelashes and her teeny fingers, you love her cooing and watching her figure out her hands and what they can do, but you want to press the pause button so you can take a few deep breaths? I was tired. I was sad.
So I flipped through the channels, and I stopped on the country music station, because there was Darius Rucker.
“Really?” I said to Harper, maybe nine months old at the time. “He went from sort of grunge to country music?” Harper looked at me with wide eyes as though she, too, thought this strange. We both turned to the TV.
Darius looked good. He looked like he’d lost weight, though it could be he was wearing clothes that fit. He looked happy, too, like he was having fun. The song he was singing, “Come Back Song,” made me smile and feel, dare I say, a little spunky and flirty. I liked listening to a song about a boy wishing for his girl back.
I took a look at the yoga pants I’d been wearing for three or seven days, and thought of my husband. That evening, he’d suggested we look for a babysitter so I could have time to write. “And maybe we could use her once a month to go out together,” he suggested.
“No,” I’d said, standing at our kitchen sink. “It’s too late for all of that. I should’ve figured out I wanted to write before we had kids.” I squeezed soap into the water as the sink filled. “And we’ve had our fun. We’re doing this now.” I shot him down as I plunged sippy-cups and bottles in soapy water.
While Darius sang, I thought about standing next to him all those years ago. I wondered if he was confused about why he wasn’t enjoying himself. If he felt guilty, not enjoying what he’d worked so hard to get. If he was unhappy because he didn’t like the songs he was singing. He still still wanted to sing, but didn’t know where to use his voice.
The trick, then, would be to keep singing, attending to the notes, trying different songs, until you find where your voice fits.
I think I could do that, I thought as I lifted Harper off the quilt and carried her to the crib. She rested her head on my shoulder and wrapped her legs around my waist and the moon shone on our shadows.
It is early spring of my older daughter Hadley’s last year of preschool. I’m in a Target parking lot after getting off the phone with the director of an MFA program telling me I’ve been accepted. In a few months, Hadley will be a kindergartner, Harper will begin preschool, and I will be a student again.
After I pick Hadley up from school, the three of us stop by a neighborhood bakery to pick up celebratory doughnuts, and as we pull away, “Wagon Wheel” comes on the radio. The girls like the song because Darius mentions Raleigh, the place their aunt and uncle and cousin live. Whenever the song comes on, they say, “Tell the story of when you met Darius but thought his name was Hootie.”
I know the song is supposed to be enticing and provocative, but I like to think of a mother—this mama—rocking the world because she’s finding her place. She’s figuring it out.
We sing at the top of our lungs: “Rock me momma like a wagon wheel, rock me momma any way you feel, hey momma rock me!” Hadley closes her eyes and plays rock star. She’s spot-on (where did she learn that?). Harper rocks her head from side to side. Her legs are crossed (always a lady) and her right foot flicks the beat. My thumb is a microphone.
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