When I decided that transferring from UNM was in my best interest, my best friend Hannah Stephens suggested that I contact former classmates of hers from the Interlochen Arts Academy; a fantastic boarding school in Michigan which has a great reputation for student success. I decided after browsing through Hannah’s impressive online rolodex of conservatory students that I would ask her friend AJ for advice. AJ attended the University of Michigan, which aside from being an amazing academic and sports institution, has an incredible music program. Shortly after I friend-requested him, we began talking on the phone daily, and I soon found myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan the weekend before Halloween 2007.
When I arrived at the Detroit International Airport, I was greeted by AJ and his best friend Sarah. I had also been communicating frequently with Sarah and quickly developed a friendship with her as well. After I spent several unnecessary yet nervous minutes fixing my hair and brushing my teeth in an airport restroom, I rode down the escalator and spotted Sarah’s wild curls immediately. She ran up to me and yelled “I have blood clots!”
“Oh my God what happened?” I asked hugging her. AJ gave me a hug and said hello as Sarah continued.
“Apparently I’m susceptible to blood clots and I have to discontinue using birth control –my aunt has the same thing and it’s a huge issue for her… I am so pissed!”
“I’m so sorry,” I said with a worried yet amused expression “you’re ok though… aren’t you?”
“Yeah- except for the fact I’m stuck with nothing but condoms for the rest of my life… not that I’m a slut, I just, UGH!”
The ride home was incredibly entertaining. AJ played a Handel cd and lectured Sarah on why the ornaments that Renee Fleming used in a particular aria weren’t proper performance practice.
“But I want to use them,” yelled Sarah from the back seat “they sound cool!”
“How many times am I going to have to tell you, they aren’t historically accurate.”
“If I ever end up conducting you,” said AJ “I’ll make you do it my way, which is the historically accurate and correct way.”
“Ha! We’ll see about that!”
It had been a long flight, but it was already worth it.
AJ and I finally had some alone time after we dropped Sarah off at her apartment. “I’m so glad you came,” said AJ “now you aren’t just the internet guy who I send random video messages to on Facebook.” I laughed nervously at this remark. He did send me video messages, and quite often actually. Most of the time, they were just to say hello and to inform me of the various stresses and adventures of his day. These 30 second blurbs had become the most anticipated part of my day when I got home from school, which at the moment was slowly draining the life out of me.
We drove approximately 5 minutes to his apartment, which was close enough to the campus that you could literally walk out the front door and grab a U of M campus bus. We unpacked my things and I immediately chilled the red chile and Frontier rolls I had brought from Albuquerque. When I walked into his room, AJ shut off his computer; he caressed my face and, after staring deep into my eyes, he kissed me for the first time.
The next day was particularly invigorating; I had never seen such a massive institution in my life, and everyone I met was so helpful and nice. We grabbed a quick cup of coffee at a campus café, and as soon as we arrived at the school of music for AJ’s first class, we ran into Sarah.
“Do you have musicology right now?” Sarah asked AJ.
“My turn!” exclaimed Sarah grabbing my arm “you really don’t want to bore Jacob with all that, and plus, he can see my apartment!”
“OK,” said AJ “but be nice, and get him back here by 1- I want him to see chamber choir.” Sarah rolled her eyes, and, after grabbing some goodies from a music school bake sale, we headed towards downtown Ann Arbor.
“I’m buying a wedding dress today,” said Sarah while I nibbled on a rice crispy treat “there’s going to be a costume party tonight and I have to make a statement.”
“Bloody bride?” I asked.
“The ULTIMATE bloody bride!” she squeeled.
The rest of the day went smoothly, I accompanied Sarah to her apartment and then to the bank. After her minor chores, we set off exploring the random shops, cafés and the local arcade. When I returned to the campus, I was able to sit in on a rehearsal of the University of Michigan’s chamber choir, which is led by Grammy Award winning conductor, Jerry Blackstone. I sat in amazement for the duration of the rehearsal. The ensemble was impeccable in their tuning, their phrasing, and their all around professionalism when it came to the creation of music. Jerry Blackstone had created such an institution out of the U of M choirs, that the students gave their absolute all to create something special, which isn’t true of most voice students who regularly view choir as a cruel and unusual punishment. When the rehearsal finished, AJ and I worked our way out of the school, and back to his apartment to get his car.
“What are we doing now?” I asked curiously.
“Well… there is a costume party that we have to get ready for, and I already told Sarah we would meet her at the Salvation Army to help her pick out a wedding dress; I hope that’s ok,” he added with a sweet apologetic tone.
When we arrived at the Salvation Army, we saw a particularly nerdy man who was holding what seemed to be about 20 pounds of white tulle.
“Who’s that?” I asked AJ.
“Oh, that’s Isaiah- Sarah met him on an online dating website for Jewish people… jdate.com. This is technically their first date.”
“I see,” I replied looking at the nervous man holding his date’s wedding dresses.
“I’ve found it!” yelled Sarah popping out of a dressing room.
“Don’t I get to see it?” asked Isaiah looking mildly upset.
“Bad luck,” replied Sarah with a smirk.
We met up with Sarah and her date at the local Meijer store to pick up additional costume supplies.
“What are you going to be?” Sarah asked both of us.
“I’m going to be a devil in Prada,” I said “I figured I would style my hair like devil horns with hair glue, add some fake blood and throw on some sunglasses.”
“I love it,” said Sarah “… nice… you don’t mind if I use your leftover blood, do you?”
“Take it,” I replied “I have no use for it after tonight, and I am definitely not taking it with me on an airplane.”
“What about you AJ,” asked Sarah “what are you going to be?”
“Myself as a twelve year old,” replied AJ.
“hmm…” hummed Sarah.
Isaiah was on the phone the entire time we were at Meijer. Apparently he ran an important financial company in California and was conducting interviews the next day at U of M. We had caused all sorts of debauchery in the store involving cheese squares, knives, and fake blood without him noticing; he simply took the cheese from Sarah and ate it. We even collectively collapsed to the floor in outrageous laughter at the sight of a lady wearing a horrifically amusing ensemble made out of real leaves and no one seemed to notice. When we got to the parking lot, Sarah asked if she could go with us and ditch her date.
“Please,” begged Sarah “I just, I can’t… I mean, I just need a break from him. Isaiah has to do work things and I want to hang out with you guys before we go to the party.”
“Fine,” said AJ stoically “get your dress.”
When we finally all piled into the car, AJ started lecturing Sarah on her escapades while I munched on a caterpillar roll I picked up from the sushi counter. When we stopped at a light, I tried turning around to say something supportive towards Sarah’s seemingly doomed case, when AJ’s Monte Carlo was violently rear-ended and smashed into the jeep in front of us. Everything in the car went flying: AJ’s glasses, books… my caterpillar roll.
“REALLY!?” exclaimed Sarah with the tone of a person who had just been inconvenienced by someone stepping in front of her at the post office.
“Oh my God!” cried AJ “are you OK? I’m so sorry, I, Jacob are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” I replied as AJ grabbed my shoulders as if to check and see if I was still in one piece “but you, are you alright?”
“I’m ok,” said AJ “but, my glasses… where are they?” I picked AJ’s glasses off the floor, and after smudging off some caterpillar roll from the frames, I placed them back on his face.
“Thank you,” said AJ “now I can see that you’re alright.”
“Ugh! That hurt!” yelled Sarah as we all got out of the car.
“Yeah, it did,” replied AJ as the three of us huddled together in the rain.
We checked with the passengers of the two other vehicles to make sure everyone was alright while we waited for the police to arrive. The driver of the SUV that hit us was mortified; apparently, his brakes went out and he had tried to stop before hitting us. When the police arrived, they informed us that an ambulance was on its way in case anyone needed medical assistance. Sarah immediately called her lawyer mother and suggested that we all got checked by the paramedics. When the police began interviewing AJ, Sarah turned to me and said “Jacob Ryan Paul… you came!”
“Of course I did,” I told Sarah “and though this isn’t necessarily the party I had in mind, there is no place I’d rather be.”
“I can’t believe your reaction the accident was ‘really!?” said AJ to Sarah “even in an emergency you manage to have comedic timing… amazing.”
When the ambulance finally arrived, we let the EMTs check us. Amazingly, Sarah had more questions than they did for each of us. She wanted to know if we could still go to a party later that evening, and if we could “theoretically” drink alcohol at said party.
“Honestly,” said the man examining us “you’re going to be in a lot of pain tomorrow, so go ahead and have fun tonight while you still can.”
The policeman on the scene offered to give the three of us and Sarah’s wedding dress a ride back to AJ’s place. When we got in, we realized that the boy who had driven the SUV was standing outside in the rain by himself waiting to for his ride to come. Sarah got out of the front seat and gave the shaken boy her umbrella and a hug. The entire ride back to his apartment, AJ held my hand while apologizing for the accident.
Sarah had Isaiah pick her up at AJ’s place so that she could get ready while AJ and I took a much needed nap. I couldn’t sleep though, I was relishing in the moment while I lay with AJ’s arms around me, praying it would last as long as possible. When the alarm clock went off, we took a long shower together, and while shampooing each other’s hair, we discussed our hopes and dreams for the future. We ended sitting in the bathtub for about twenty minutes while we let the warm water steam and carry the aroma of Dove green tea and cucumber body wash throughout his one bedroom apartment.
It took us approximately ten minutes to walk to Sarah’s apartment, and when we arrived, she was ecstatic that I had remembered the fake blood for her to use. Both mine and AJ’s costumes were pretty simple, I had spiked my hair into two devil horns, and put on a suit, while AJ wore jeans and an oversized Green Bay Packers jersey, with a part in the middle of his hair. Sarah, however, had an elaborate and surprisingly flattering wedding dress, that looked tailored especially for her. Sarah squeezed the fake blood into her hand and immediately got into character.
“Behold, Lucia di Lammermoor!” exclaimed Sarah. Donizetti’s tragic heroine was Sarah’s dream role. She began to sing the mad scene, “Il dolce suono…. Spargi d’amoro” while spreading the blood all over her white wedding dress. When we stepped out onto the busy street, Sarah continued singing, garnering rapturous applause from much of downtown Ann Arbor and even occasionally stopping traffic. Every time some asked “what happened?” to Sarah, she replied “it didn’t work out… he wasn’t my type!” When we arrived to the party of mostly U of M voice majors, everyone shouted “Lucia!” upon seeing her, instantly getting what she was going for. “See… best costume ever!” said Sarah.
I thought AJ was joking when he told me that we were going to a football game. Football… I hate football! Not only that, but I had only brought khakis and dress pants, and mine and AJ’s waist sizes differed by about 4 inches. To blend in, I was lent a random Northface jacket to wear. We got up and out of the apartment quickly that day. AJ had found a random person on craigslist.com who was selling a ticket for the game, and we had to get it validated.
Despite the overcast, I thought it was a beautiful day. Growing up in New Mexico, I was seldom exposed to this much green, and have a tendency to make a fool out of myself when visiting the East coast and Midwest. Nevertheless, we got our tickets validated and we were off to the game. As we were walking, AJ expressed concern that I wouldn’t be entertained. When we stopped for coffee, he explained that there were usually a lot more people on the streets heading towards the Big House. When we arrived at our destination, we didn’t see anyone; AJ made a phone call to his friend Mary, and immediately turned bright red. When he hung up the phone, AJ informed me that we were 3 hours early. We headed back to his apartment for twenty minutes on foot.
We decided to check on Sarah before our second venture to the game. When she met us at her door, she yelled “the entire right side of my body is sore!”
“That’s unfortunate,” said AJ “I feel tons better.”
“How about you Jacob, are you sore?”
“Not at all actually,” I replied “for some reason I don’t have an ounce of pain… maybe it was my guardian angel.”
“Whatever it was, you are so lucky, I feel like shit!”
“Do you want us to stop by after the game?” asked AJ.
“Sure, I have to judge the ugly cake contest for UMGASS- I’m totally thinking Lucia again. Do you mind escorting me and maybe we can do something after?”
We both agreed to our plans, and left for the game. We stopped for more coffee at Espresso Royale and made our way with the rest of the Michigan fans. According to everyone at U of M, it was the “little brown jug” game against Minnesota. Apparently, every year, the opposing teams play for temporary ownership of a little brown jug, whichever team wins gets to keep the jug until the next year’s game. Michigan currently had temporary ownership of the jug and was playing to keep it. The walk to the Big House was like nothing I had ever seen. I had always thought that that familiar scene of frat parties with beer kegs being passed overhead with literally thousands of people shoving themselves into an Alpha Theta whatever house only belonged in the movies, but no… it existed right here in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I immediately started feeling excited for my least favorite sport. The actual game was incredibly entertaining; AJ and his friends snuck me into the student section amid a crowd of over 100,000 people. I found myself thoroughly enjoying every second of the game yelling “Go Blue” excitedly along with everyone else. I even spotted two different “Waldos” in the student section… it seemed that the whole world was there that day. The Michigan Wolverines ended up slaughtering the Minnesota Golden Gophers 34 to 10, and AJ even found a great deal on pizza for all of us on the way out.
When we went to Sarah’s apartment, she was already dressed in her costume and ready to go. I took my camera with us this time and documented our trek through U of M and around the city. I took pictures of Sarah with random people on the campus quad where she garnered a seemingly celebrity status as they lined up asking me and AJ to photograph them with their own cameras and phones. After we finally got Sarah to her destination, AJ and walked around downtown looking for something to do. As we passed the State Theatre, I noticed that there was going to be a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture that night, and I insisted that we get tickets.
“Have you ever seen it?” I asked AJ.
“No, I haven’t actually. We can go if you want.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to a midnight showing of this!” I exclaimed.
“What’s so special about this particular movie’s midnight showing? I’ve heard it mentioned before.”
“Because… it’s interactive, there is an audience script that you fill in the blanks with and people throw popcorn. We have to go!”
Neither Sarah nor AJ had ever seen the movie, while Hannah and I have regular Rocky Horror nights where we sing and dance like idiots to the music. When we arrived, the theatre was packed with people dressed up like Janet, Brad, Magenta, Rocky and Dr. Frankenfurter. The energy was intense and once again, everyone was interested in taking their picture with Sarah. When the movie started, I joined in with everyone else yelling “slut” and “asshole” at the appropriate times… much to AJ and Sarah’s amusement. When the rain scene started, I covered a confused AJ and Sarah with newspaper while the people behind us sprayed their soda on us through straws and joined our alternative neighbors in a cramped version of the Time Warp. When the movie was over, I was a little worried it may have been a little much for AJ and Sarah until they started planning their next visit… I received a call a month later from Sarah that she had gone to a Rocky Horror puppet show.
My final full day in Ann Arbor, Michigan was filled with activities. After breakfast, I had to go with AJ to church while he sang in the chorus. Apparently, Jessye Norman had held the same choral job during her tenure at U of M to make extra cash. The service was actually quite beautiful, and featured the music of Mendelssohn and Handel. Until this point I had only been to Catholic masses with the exception of the occasional trip to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.
After the service, AJ and I walked to Zingerman’s Delicatessen for lunch. Again, I found myself in awe of the autumn leaves amidst the picket fenced houses. AJ seemed confused at my enthusiasm; I had to explain that although the New Mexican landscape is beautiful, it doesn’t possess this particular type of seasonal beauty, and I had never seen an autumn like this in my life. As we neared Zingerman’s we realized that the line to the entrance wrapped around the building. We took our spots with authority and with the assurance that we would receive our just rewards for our patience. According to everyone I had spoken to, Zingerman’s had the best of everything, and it was imperative that I buy chocolate chip cookies and as much hamantaschen as monetarily possible. When we reached the bottom of the porch entrance, we were greeted with free samples of pickles and potato salad. When we finally got inside Zingerman’s, we decided to buy random containers of food to share on a table outside. After I got my cookies and hamantaschen, we shared a delectable picnic of salads and lunch meat before taking a Sunday afternoon walk through the arboretum.
The Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan was devastatingly beautiful. With the crisp October air turning its leaves red and yellow amidst a sky of clear blue, I was left speechless. As we wondered aimlessly through never-ending paths and hills, I became suddenly aware that I would have to leave Michigan in no less than 14 hours. When we reached a bench in the middle of a clearing, AJ asked me to join him and sit for a little while. I was already hurting at the thought of leaving and didn’t think it could get any worse.
“I think I had a problem,” said AJ.
“And what’s that?” I asked concerned.
“You’re leaving tomorrow, and I’m falling in love with you,” he said with a stern glisten in his hazel eyes. There it was, out in the open, my feelings reciprocated by the one and only person I had ever in my life opened my heart to.
“I’m falling in love with you too,” I replied. I felt more naked in saying these words than I had ever before. I was like a gazelle in the African wilderness, exposing its jugular to a pride of hungry lions knowing very well the consequence.
“But, I can’t commit myself to you,” said AJ “I am becoming so attached to you right now, and tomorrow, you’re going to be physically out of my life. I just don’t think it’s fair to either one of us to commit to something that’s not going to be possible for either of us for the next few years.”
“I understand,” I replied utterly disappointed. I knew that although we both desired success in classical music, we both had entirely different educational needs and goals to accomplish what we wanted.
We both sat speechless for about a minute until we shifted the conversation elsewhere and continued to make our way through the arboretum. We ended up exiting through a cemetery as the wind picked up and rustled the leaves angrily against the century old headstones. I found myself suddenly anxious, not necessarily concerning AJ, but rather concerning my whole life in general. I knew at this point that I had to do something; I had to get out of New Mexico and really get serious about my life. I was suddenly filled with desperation for more than what I had. I wanted things; not material things like cars or clothes or even money– I wanted magic, and I wanted to be the source of that magic. I wanted to create, to be loved, to experience life through a different lens and call it my own. I was just on the cusp of something and I knew it. I knew that my world was changing, that things were unraveling, but not in a bad way; I was ridding myself of the rust that had weighed me down and made me feel so insignificant. I was becoming someone, someone new and hopeful. I felt the air chill my lungs and cool my body as these thoughts filled my mind, and as if by metamorphosis, I felt myself change. I felt a physical, magical change.