Melanie Malinowski for Nonfiction

Jun 27, 2016 by

Melanie Malinowski for Nonfiction

 Arena Rock


By now, I’m crying. We are somewhere near the North Carolina border in psychedelic snow blurs, traversing an icy road, overturned cars pitched here and there in the white.

“Do you want me to drive?” Vaughn asks.

“You can’t drive in snow,” I yell.

“Neither can you,” he says.

I want to kill him. He is the reason we’re in this mess. We left Delaware after Christmas to drive home to Houston. We knew that a spectacular blizzard was churning its way right up I-95, straight for us. I wanted to stay an extra day, let the weather clear, keep me and my dog, Jezebel, safe, but Vaughn wanted to leave my mom’s house. He was angry because an ex-boyfriend had called me over and over and over again, so since the ex had phoned and I had talked to him, Vaughn insisted we leave Delaware this January morning in my little red Jetta and smash head-on into a vicious snowstorm. I knew better, so why did I agree?


I am a victim of the Power Ballad, especially those songs screeched from the best heavy metal hair bands of the ‘80s: Poison, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Guns ‘N Roses. Oh how I love to be in love and how I love to feel that friction of being in love, in love with the wrong guy, in love with the idea that this love may not work out and I can transform its afterburn into my own overly romantic power ballad. If only I gravitated, emotionally, to the heavy metal “Talk Dirty to Me” genre, “Cherry Pie,” “Live Wire,” “Highway to Hell.” My romantic life has always organized itself like that slow tempoed, angsty power ballad. Give me six minutes of withering longing, heartache, and loss anyday.

Which is why I am here, at thirty-six years old, sliding dangerously close to plummeting off the interstate and into cold oblivion with Vaughn, my balding, compact avid cyclist boyfriend with a voice that sounds like the sensation of sticking your hands into a box of broken glass. This would never happen to Motley Crue’s muses.

“Come on, Baby,” Vaughn says, stroking my leg. I think we have actually stopped moving, not because of traffic, but because I am terrified to accelerate or to brake or to continue our journey home sweet home. Stasis seems the best course of action, holding the long note, ripping out the guitar solo, lighters held high. I am beyond consolable in my panic, become histrionic.

“Everything I hold precious is in this car, and we’re going to die because of you!” I hate my own stupid voice and cannot believe I have spoken these cliched words.


“Without your love, I’m nothing but a beggar. Without your love, a dog without a bone,” sings Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler in “Angel.” These clichés never sounded so good to my ears. If people in the “real” world use clichés, though, I judge their “poor word choice,” but put those same hackneyed phrases in the mouth of a rock star, and a hit is made. It also doesn’t hurt that Steven Tyler is the sexiest man alive. “Angel” is Aerosmith’s only Power Ballad, and of course, as power ballads go, it spent twenty-five weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 list in 1988. Back in the 80s, when we first heard power ballads, they were produced and played without irony. What would the prom be without a good old power ballad? Clichéd lyrics are easy to remember, and singing away your angst rocks your soul. My own cliché, however, sickens me. I get brave. I accelerate. We go forward. We move. We do not slide.

“You’re doing great,” Vaughn encourages me. “We’re fine.” I glance at him. He is stripped down to a tank top and jeans, so stifling hot is my car. He looks cute, tan and thin and blue-eyed and kind, staring at me and smiling, his warm, strong fingers pressing my thigh. And there it is: the familiar welling up of affection for him. I am back inside the tune of my song. Jezebel noses between us, happy the moment has passed. Vaughn turns up the volume on the Alice Cooper tape. “I’m 18” pounds out of my speakers.

I am 18 when I am with Vaughn, and so is he. We feel crippling attraction, burning. We revel in that sweet teenage emotion, desire and longing nesting. Vaughn owns a very successful company, I own a Ph.D. and teach creative writing. We both have jobs and families and friends and social lives and complications. Yet we only want to do one thing, and this one thing is what has drawn us together, together into this power ballad: to lie beside a quarry or beneath a summer night sky or under a train bridge, and simply be. We will get our chance seven miles ahead: Henderson, NC, the sign reads. “I’m stopping.” We have not been on the road long, have many miles to go, but this is where we will spend the night, this is our quarry, our summer sky, our power ballad.

Henderson, North Carolina, is the most unromantic, pitiful place I’ve ever spent the night, besides Bristol, Tennessee, and Rock Springs, Wyoming. However, Henderson, North Carolina, has a brand new Comfort Inn that, unbelievably, allows pets. Vaughn’s mood has lifted. He is hungry and ready to play in the snow. A Louisiana boy, he has never seen snow like this, snow that swallows up Jezebel as she bounds, chest deep, in its heat. The three of us run in the drifts and freeze our hands, our faces. We do not have coats or boots. (I think I wore clogs.) We are in sweatshirts with socks on our hands. We are kids lost in the grimy white landscape. We are so suspended that day between—between home and away, safety and danger, hunger and satiation, here and there. That liminal space, that in between, that opening for possibility, is what every Power Ballad offers, a suspension of time, of aging, of transformation, and for those moments, we are whoever, everywhere and nowhere at once. No one knows us. No one cares, not even ourselves. “Where do we go now?” Axl Rose sings in “Sweet Child of Mine,” “Where do we go?” And now is where the song, my power ballad, builds to its crescendo that has concert goers, broken hearted girls, and the staff at the only coffee shop in Henderson belting out lyrics, known to them better than the elements on the Periodic Table or their mother’s birthdays.

The coffee shop is closing, due to the weather. Red cheeked, we bang on the dirty glass door, and they take pity and give us sludgy coffee in two giant Styrofoam cups. We have no food, but somehow, this is OK. Vaughn and I walk back to the hotel, huddling our faces together, back to Jezebel, panting and wagging on the bed. She’s been fed, watered, run. She’s happy. I watch Vaughn unwind himself from his clothes and sprawl on his hip and elbow across the comforter, sipping coffee. I join him.

We eat miniature Twix bars for dinner and watch the snow stop. We laugh. We joke about my hysteria, his anger. Yet we both know this journey will bridge us back home to hot, humid, responsible Houston where we will break up. He and I, we don’t really belong together, and we both know it. Six months of breathy, hot, eighteen year old desire and nostalgia flaring up around us, hard to bat down those flames. Yet this “healthy” break up will be worse than I can imagine tonight beside the quarry, under the peaceful summer sky. I will have night sweats and weight loss and more sadness than Poison can cram into a five minute power ballad. I will not see Vaughn for a year after we end; it will still be difficult. But. We are not 18. This is not working.


This evening, though, under the silencing snow of a Southern blizzard, we lay out on the bed, overly caffeinated and vibrant with cold. I listen to Vaughn tell me a story about growing up in Bossier City, Louisiana, how hard it was being poor, how his high school girlfriend got pregnant and how he had to work shifts in a lumber yard and how he just couldn’t be there anymore. So he had left. He stroked my arm, and I felt very safe and warm and I can still see the shiny orange and brown comforter and the television in the corner. On MTV, Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, all dreamy blond hair and lovely face, is singing “I Remember You.” I fall asleep.

If our life moments lasted 6:23 minutes, if we could get in, sing a few troubled bars, do it, fix it, and get out, in the space of a song’s radio play, how different our experiences could be. But because we are humans and we dwell and hang on and hope and hope and hope and doubt, we pull the romance along behind us when it wanted to be abandoned at the last rest stop. We do not live our lives between the “bars of the rhyme,” as Dire Straits’ Romeo tells Juliet. Instead, the song ends, the romance collapses, the love evaporates, and silently, we pick up our stars and go home.

get-attachment-5.aspxMelanie J. Malinowski—with a PhD in creative writing/literature—is a life-long fan of Steven Tyler and lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Andy, their daughter, Echo, and dog, Egypt.





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