Chapter 2: real beginnings

A/N: Who doesn’t like beginnings? :]

Let’s rewind a bit. Long before the escapade in Austin that morning, before I got trashed with the band for the first time, before I’d joined the tour staff, there was the night in my dorm room with a box of Franzia, my friends Tess and Dani, and a delirious bout of celebrity stalking on Google.

We’d been mourning the end of Tess’s short-lived relationship with her former organic chemistry TA, a match doomed from the beginning by his constant obligation to be in lab, and her constant failure to grasp Diels-Alder reactions. But she said it was fun while it lasted, and our rapidly emptying box of Franzia was a salute to something that wasn’t meant to last.

We were about three-quarters of the way through the box when we started naming celebrities we’d make out with.

“Alexander Skarsgard!” proclaimed Tess from her position sprawled out on the floor with her arm thrown over her face.

“From True Blood?” asked Dani. We promptly Googled him.

Tess rolled over onto her stomach and nodded with approval as each image search result hit scrolled by. “Oh my God, yes. Give me a dude who plays a vampire on TV over a chem TA any day.”

“What about Josh Duhamel?” I suggested. “Fergie’s husband? He was in that rom-com with Kristen Bell.” I offered up a photo from IMDb for their scrutiny.

Tess rolled over on the floor again, melting into my filthy dorm room carpet. “Oh my God, I would do dirty things to that boy…”

This went on for longer than I care to admit, but we were nearing the end of the Franzia by the time singers and rock stars were up to bat.

“Jon Bon Jovi,” called out Dani.

“Old,” I declared, showing her a recent photo.

“Bono!” suggested Tess.

“Philanthropist!” dismissed Dani.

Tess started giggling. “How is that an objection?”

“It just is!” said Dani. “Justin Beiber!”

“VETOED,” I yelled over both of them laughing. “Justin Timberlake!”

“Yes!” said Tess. “A million times yes!”

“Oh my God,” said Dani with newfound urgency as she struggled upright and feebly reached for my computer. “That guitar prodigy kid who toured with John Mayer!”

“Who?” asked Tess.

“Chad Kalispell?” I asked, browsing Google search results for ‘John Mayer tour guitar prodigy.’

“Yeah!” Dani exclaimed, climbing onto the bed next to me. “He was like fifteen when some agent discovered him and started touring before he even graduated from high school. He’s a crazy good guitarist, and he’s SO dreamy.”

We all crowded around my laptop to scrutinize the image search results for Chad Kalispell. My first impression was that he looked surprisingly old. Not like Bon Jovi old, more like Dani’s summary had set me up to expect that he’d be a scrawny teenager — but upon quick Wikipedia-based research, we figured out that he was three years older than us. But hot damn, even the photos of him when he was a teenager… messy dark brown hair, his brilliant blue eyes, the intensity of his expression focused on his guitar, and recent photos of him in this one light green button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up his muscular arms — I could feel a giddy longing well up in my stomach.

So it was that I’d already heard of Chad Kalispell and his latest band, Ravenlight, when Curtis called me for a favor late spring quarter of my sophomore year.

“Just a couple months, Mel,” he begged. “That’s all I’m asking.”

“You don’t even know if I can take good photos of musicians,” I reminded him. “Why not hire a professional?”

“Honestly? Because we can pay you a lot less. You’d pick it up quick enough.”

“You’re asking me to take a quarter off from school, and you’re not going to pay me well?”

“I’ll pay you plenty,” he assured me, “just not the jacked up ‘I’m an artiste‘ prices that the pros ask for. Besides, Melanie, you’d be a hell of a lot more fun to have around.”

I smiled. Curtis has known me since I was in diapers, so it was gratifying to know that he didn’t mind hanging out with his best friend’s little sister. I hesitated, thinking. The tour didn’t start until mid-August, by which point my summer internship at the Tuolumne Field Station would be finished. There were classes that I wanted to take fall quarter, but nothing necessarily life-changing that I’d never have the chance to take later.

Curtis sensed my hesitation and threw me a bone. “Tell you what, the band’s playing in San Francisco in a few weeks. We’ll do a try out — you take some photos of the show, meet the band, see how you like the vibe. I’ll see if we like your photos and we can go from there.”

I agreed, even though the show was the Friday night before finals started. Curtis managed to get me in to the Independent despite the fact that I wouldn’t turn 21 until August. It involved signing my life away to Curtis and walking in past the bouncer like I owned the place an hour before doors opened, but we managed it.

The Independent is a cozy venue, nothing like the mega-star arenas that Chad played in during his teenage years. I should point out, by the way, that although Dani knew him from his stint with John Mayer, I consider it more impressive that he toured with the Raconteurs and the Smashing Pumpkins — not exactly Dani’s taste in music but well within the realm of mine. After parting ways with the big name acts when he turned 19, Chad had played with a string of indie rock bands, mostly playing in grungy clubs and bars. The Independent was classier than that — at least, it was with no people in it. Later that night, Ravenlight would manage to liven the place up to a notch or two below classy.

Curtis was right. I adapted to taking photos of a rock band faster than I would have guessed. Adjustments for lighting and spatial considerations are second nature to me, and I took some test shots while the band wrapped up their sound check and the lighting tech was playing around. I recognized the song they were playing, Switchblade, even though Chad and Noah were busy yelling back and forth with the sound engineer rather than playing with any sense of diligence. It was a good song, not one of their most popular, but I’d always liked it for the bizarre murder story in the lyrics.

I was sitting at the bar examining the test photos on my camera when Curtis came to drag me over and meet the band.

“Guys, this is Melanie Harper. If all goes well, she’s going to be our photographer for the fall tour.”

I waved hello and stepped up to the stage to shake Noah’s proffered hand.

“Welcome, Melanie. I’m Noah,” he said, squatting down at my level. “Try to get me from the right side,” he whispered conspiratorially. “It’s my good side.”

I laughed. I’d known enough cocky, self-important guys to know I should set the tone from the start. “You sure about that?” I asked. “You’ve got this sort of patchy spot over here,” I said, motioning to the right side of his head above his ear.

He gasped in mock disbelief. “I do not!”

Chad leaned over to check. “Yep, definitely a little patchy.”

“I might be better off just shooting you from the neck down,” I mused.

Rob chuckled. “Poking holes in Noah’s ego already… Curtis, I like this girl.”

Noah shuffled off sadly, and the rest of the band did a quick round of introductions. Chad, lead guitarist. Rob, bassist. Logan, drummer. Chad hopped off stage once he’d introduced himself and disappeared in the direction of the green room, and Rob returned to his amp to fix something.

Logan and I hit it off from the start. Unlike his bandmates, he didn’t mind talking about someone other than himself. We chatted for a while about how I knew Curtis and about my photographer family while the rest of the band adjusted things onstage. Talking to Logan was easy — he managed to extract the succinct summary of my life story without even really trying. I asked him why he decided to become a drummer, and he laughed.

“I just sort of fell into it, I guess. Drumming just makes a lot of sense to me.” When I looked at him, puzzled, he pulled me up onstage to show me around his setup and everyone else’s. “Everyone has their own logic — their method to the madness, you know?”

I nodded, thinking of my brother Lewis’s photographer’s vest that he wears when he’s shooting weddings. New memory cards, full memory cards, lenses, flash assemblies, spare batteries — the billion things you need when a bridezilla is brandishing her bouquet at you like a club and demanding that you make her look good. The thought alone always sends chills up my spine and solidifies my decision to never follow in Lewis’s footsteps. Besides, I’m way too much of an ecology nerd to ever head down that path.

“So what’s Curtis’s plan for you?” Logan asked as he settled himself on the stool behind his drum set. “Fly you out to the big shows so you don’t have to miss too much school?”

I shook my head. “I have no idea, but I think he wants me along for the whole thing. I’d be taking a quarter off school.”

“For this?” he asked, his tone disbelieving.

His expression was such a great caricature that I quickly swung my camera up and snapped a photo of him. “It’s not that big of a deal,” I laughed. “I know a lot of people who study abroad for a quarter, and it’s really more like partying than learning. And they still pay tuition for that.”

Logan blinked. “Sorry, I didn’t process anything you just said because I’m still in shock that you took a photo of me.”

I grinned. “That’s my job.”

The sound engineer interrupted to ask Logan to test the levels on the bass drum again, so I backed off and hopped down from the stage to explore. Some of the venue staff were finishing up rolling away the tables that had been set up in front of the stage for last night’s (classier) show, which had seats and standing room. Ravenlight’s show would be a general admission crowd for whom tables would only get in the way.

I walked around the stage, sizing up the layout and framing shots in my head. The setup was good — plenty of angles where the shot wouldn’t be too backlit by the lights, and there was room for me to wander around the fringes of the stage without being noticed. Satisfied, I headed down the narrow hall at stage left toward the green room to check it out.

Chad was leaning in over a wispy girl he had pressed against the wall of the corridor. She was giggling, pushing jokingly at his shoulders with her scrawny, skinny arms. Whoever she was, she looked like the kind of girl who would break if you hugged her wrong. Chad, by comparison, was tall, lean, and entirely too powerful to be so close to her fragile frame. He managed to plant a kiss where her jaw meets her ear, then noticed me watching as I approached down the hall.

“Hey,” he said by way of greeting, nodding at me with the smarmiest half smile I’ve ever seen. The girl blushed fuchsia, but he turned back to her and planted his mouth on hers. They both stopped paying attention to me, and I edged around them to retreat into the green room.

I was messing around with my camera when Chad, decidedly alone, came in. I saw him grab a water bottle out of the corner of my eye, then seat himself on the arm of the couch. I ignored him.

“What’re you doing?” he asked conversationally.

I finished taking the picture before bringing my camera down from my eye. “Checking white balance,” I replied.

He smirked. “Or are you taking a photo of that veggie tray?”

I laughed. “Hipster photos of food aren’t really my thing.”

He laughed in turn. With engineered sheepishness, he looked down at his shoe and scratched the back of his neck. “Look, uhm, thanks for not documenting that back there,” he said, glancing up at me with an expression that would melt hearts if it didn’t look so intentional.

I shook my head and went back to shooting the white wall. “I don’t do paparazzi shots,” I told him, then put the camera down, thoughtful. “But then again, photographing rock bands isn’t my thing either. So who knows? I’m way out of character.”

His expression turned puzzled. “You’re not usually a tour photographer?” he asked.

“Hell no,” I said, throwing him a dubious look. “I’m still a student.”

“Art school?” he asked.

I laughed. “If you want to call Stanford University an art school, then yeah.”

He stared at me like I was an alien creature with tentacles or something. “Where the hell did Curtis find you?”

“He’s my brother’s best friend,” I explained. “And he called in a favor.”

He smiled, that sort of tugging half smile I’d first seen when Google stalking him months before. “Lucky you,” he said. I could tell he wasn’t being sarcastic — he believed I ought to feel lucky to be around him and the rest of Ravenlight, living their lifestyle. “So what’s a Stanford student doing with such a nice camera?”

“This?” I asked, holding it up. “This is not my nice camera.”

His eyebrows shot up. “What are you doing with more than one nice camera?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. If he was asking about why photography, I didn’t even begin to have a good answer for him. Why walk? Why breathe?

“If paparazzi shots and rock bands and food aren’t your thing, what do you take photos of?”

I smiled, and answered with the one-liner my friend James thought up for me once. “The most beautiful places in the world.”

He stared at me with due skepticism, so I pulled out my phone. It was a lesson we all learned from Dad — never go anywhere without your portfolio. You never know when you’ll meet a gallery owner, a client, a buyer. Back in Dad’s heyday, he actually kept a binder of prints, but we live in the 21st century. My portfolio is in my photos on my iPhone. I scrolled through my photo gallery, the perfect one already in mind.

“Here,” I said, handing him my phone.

He examined it, rich orange clouds billowing out from the sunset on the water. After a moment, he frowned. “I feel like I’ve been here,” he said.

I nodded. “It’s Puget Sound,” I told him, “taken from Pike Place Market.” When he glanced up at me sharply, I added, “You guys are from Seattle, right?”

“Yeah,” he said softly, his eyes still on the photograph. “I’ve been through that part of town a million times, but I’ve never seen it like this.”

It was my turn for a little half smile. “There’s a lot of beauty in the world, if you’re paying attention,” I said. “You just have to notice.”

Our conversation was interrupted at that point by Noah popping into the doorway and knocking on the frame. “Yo, Eddie needs us to walk him through the set list before doors open,” he told Chad.

“Be right there,” Chad replied. He stood and lobbed his empty water bottle into the recycling bin by the door. He handed back my phone. “I’ll remember that,” he said, his gaze holding mine. “I’ll try to notice.” And with that, he headed out with Noah.

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