“Guys, can you believe it? It’s been exactly one year since our last live gig – I mean, to this very day!” Piero, my childhood friend and bandmate exclaimed.
Unable to contain his excitement, he pulled out his drum sticks and started drumming on the walls of the sticker-clad entrance to Shibuya Rockmania, oozing with a familiar smell of dust and decadence. This was the club where we had performed almost every Friday night until the pandemic hit Tokyo.
“Can’t wait to see our fans again, and…” Piero’s sentence was cut short when he suddenly disappeared out of sight, apparently having missed a step, causing him to roll down all the way to the bottom.
Taku, my bass player, and I hurried around the corner and found ourselves looking down at Piero laying on the floor in front of the club entrance with a stupid grin on his face, holding up both drum sticks as if to show us that they, at least, were unscathed from the tumultuous fall.
“There’s a reason we call you Piero, you clown! If you broke anything and can’t play tonight, I swear I’ll kill you!” Taku burst out, apparently making no effort to control his infamous temper.
I knew Taku meant what he said, having finally agreed to drop out of university to join us full time, and I had no doubt that he was capable of inflicting serious damage being a head taller than both of us; his giant black mane reaching halfway down his back and tattooed arms making him look scarier than anyone I knew. The band was all that Taku had now, just like me and Piero, and not making it big was simply not an option anymore.
“Looks like he’s alright…that’s all that matters,” I said, always the diplomatic one in our trio, trying to prevent any sparks from flying between my precious bandmates, adding, “You should have stopped after two beers like Taku and I!”
As the guitarist and lead vocalist, not to mention the fact that I wrote most of our music, I was the natural leader, and they knew it, but I relied on Taku and Piero to stay on good terms, which was often a difficult balancing act.
“Oh, lighten up, guys! This will be a historic night,” Piero exclaimed, flew up on his feet again apparently having escaped injury, and disappeared into the dim, dungeon-like space that over the years had seen countless young bands rise to fame.
During the pandemic, we had done what we could to stay in touch with our fans through online jam sessions and live chats, but putting all live performances on hold had been a nightmare almost driving us crazy. Now we were finally back!
After a few hours we had finished our sound-check, downed another few beers while watching the other acts play before us, and it was finally our turn. The club was now packed with probably around three-hundred youngsters, including our core fans, many of them having been with us from the beginning when we, in our mid-teens at the time, were playing on street corners and in Yoyogi Park. We knew that tonight was special, though; this was finally the beginning of the post-pandemic era that we all had been waiting for!
When we finally stepped out on the small stage, we seemed to be doing everything right, and in spite of how ring-rusty we felt after our long hiatus, as I watched people jumping up and down, giant manes of all colors bouncing around, and fists pumping in the air, there was no mistaking it; we were on track for our big break-through!
A few songs into our set, my eyes fell on a woman towards the back, standing almost still quietly watching, in spite of the rowdy crowd all around her. She was quite tall and probably around forty or so, with her hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a proper office attire with a gray jacket making her look completely out of place, and every time my glance passed her, she was looking straight at me, giving me the feeling that, more than enjoying our performance, she was there to observe us. For a moment I wondered whether she was a reporter from a magazine or something, and when I realized that her eyes seemed to be solely focused on me, her presence started to unnerve me, and I decided to ignore her to avoid getting distracted.
Close to the end of our show, it was time for our only ballad; a pure outflow of emotions of anxiety that had overwhelmed me one late night when I was sixteen, soon after having dropped out of high school only to find myself wavering in my decision and doubting my talent as a song writer. It was a very personal song that even now gave me a boost of encouragement when I needed it, and I believed it symbolized the pinnacle of my musical skills, capturing the chaotic emotions only a teenager could experience. I always performed it by myself, since all I needed was my acoustic guitar and a harmonica.
At the end of the song, which also this time even after our long break left several people teary-eyed, I noticed that the woman whose gaze I had been avoiding also seemed to be wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, making my mind conclude that she must be a genuine fan after all, but before I got a chance to see whether she was actually crying, Piero and Taku returned to the stage and we delivered our last two numbers.
When we were done and started to mingle with everyone, being treated drink after drink, and even signing some autographs, I had completely forgotten about the woman until I noticed her standing just nearby trying to make eye-contact with me. I turned towards her with a smile and said, “Hello. I hope you enjoyed the show.”
She bowed politely, causing me to do the same awkwardly, not being used to dealing with people twice my age. “Very much,” she said, smiling gently, and as she did, I realized that she was very beautiful; her pitch black, large, round eyes radiating a sense of curiosity and genuine interest in me that almost made me feel embarrassed.
“You are very gifted and charismatic on stage,” she continued, at which I felt myself blushing, and after a pause when she was just looking at me as my mind was racing to think of something appropriate to say, ending up just shaking my head in an attempt of humble denial, she added, “I now understand why my daughter is such a fan of you and your music, especially your ballad.”
Finally it made sense to me; she was there together with her daughter who was the real fan.
As I was about to ask where her daughter was, she reached into her handbag and took out a pen and a photo of myself on stage and said, “I know she would be very happy if you would please sign this. She took the photo herself before the pandemic.”
“Of course,” I replied, feeling honored, adding, “Isn’t she here tonight?”
“No,” she said, and after a short pause added, “She wanted to, though.”
“Oh, too bad. I hope she can make it the next time. What’s her name?” I asked, wanting to make the message personal.
“Erika,” she said, and seemed to hesitate before she continued, “If you don’t mind, do you think you could please add that you hope she gets well soon?”
“Sure!” I said, thinking she had a cold or something, and as I was about to jot something down, she continued, “Actually, she’s got Covid and has been hospitalized for over two months, going in and out of ICU.”
My hand stopped and I stared at her as the gravity of her words sank in. I had certainly had some friends who had tested positive, but none of them had gotten any symptoms to speak of.
She continued, “She has some preconditions, and…well, I just hope she will get through it all soon.”
There was no mistaking the distress in her eyes and the slight quiver on her voice; there was no doubt in my mind that Erika was in serious condition.
”I’m so sorry…I hope she’ll recover quickly,” I mumbled, as it dawned upon me how much this meeting must mean to her. Was this in fact her last desperate effort to save Erika? Going out of her way to a club to see her daughter’s favorite band in her stead, with the hope of getting a message of encouragement for her? The very last straw?
In silence and with a shaking hand I wrote a message wishing Erika well, adding that I hoped to see her soon at one of our gigs.
I handed her the message saying, “Thank you for coming tonight, and please wish Erika all the best from me.”
We were suddenly interrupted by Piero’s raspy voice cutting through the noise, and I felt him pulling my arm from behind, “Hey, come over here and meet these people!”
Erika’s mother received the photo with both hands, almost caressing it, and said, “Thank you so much. If you only knew how much this will mean to her.”
She bowed politely, and as our eyes met one more time, I thought she was struggling to hold back tears before she hurriedly walked off towards the exit.
As Piero pulled me away, I suddenly had an idea. I broke free and dashed up to the stage where I had left my black harmonica, grabbed it and made my way through the crowd towards the exit. At the top of the stairs I caught up with Erika’s mother, who stopped in surprise as I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Here, please give this to Erika,” I said and held out the harmonica.
After a moment of staring at me as if she didn’t quite comprehend that I was in fact giving it to her, she took a step back and said, “Oh no, I couldn’t!”
“I’m serious. I want her to have it,” I said, grabbed her hand, put the harmonica in it and closed her fingers around it.
As she stood there still hesitating, slowly turning the harmonica in her hand, I smiled and added, “Don’t worry, I have several others,” which was a lie. An electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, and this harmonica, all three bought in a cheap second-hand store in Shibuya, was all that I had been able to afford so far, but it now all seemed so trivial, and making sure Erika got the harmonica suddenly meant the world to me. Although I hardly knew anything about her, not even what she looked like, it didn’t seem to matter. A sense of responsibility – an obligation even - to do whatever was in my power to help Erika simply from knowing that she liked my music, took a hold of me; a feeling so strong and new to me that it surprised me.
Erika’s mother fell quiet and just kept looking at me, her eyes shining. “You are so kind. So different from what I…” she stopped and looked down at the harmonica again. My long black hair with touches of green and blue, pierced eyebrows, and tattoos on the side of my neck usually made people avoid the seat next to me on the train, and I knew very well what she was thinking, but there was something so honest and genuinely sweet in her voice that it warmed my heart.
“How can I ever thank you?” she continued.
“You already have. I know now that my music actually means something…I mean, more than just people coming here and having a good time,” I said.
She tilted her head slightly and smiled gently as she pressed the harmonica close to her chest.
“Erika will treasure this. Thank you,” she said in an affectionate voice, before she bowed and walked away in the dark.
I watched her until she disappeared out of sight, leaving me there in solitude trying to get a grip on my emotions.
“What the hell’s going on with you?”
I started at Piero’s voice right behind me. I must have been standing there for quite some time, unable to shake off the thought of Erika fighting for her life while we were all here enjoying ourselves, and I reluctantly followed Piero down the stairs back inside Rockmania.
A busy few months followed as life almost returned to normal after the pandemic, and we continued playing at Rockmania every Friday night, each time gaining more traction and new fans, convincing us that we were indeed on our way to stardom.
Erika’s mother never came back again, and deep in my heart I had a feeling that things hadn’t ended well, as I still vividly remembered the anxiety I saw in her eyes. I got more and more moved every time I performed my ballad, since it now felt like I was singing it in memory of Erika wishing I had at least had the chance to meet her, and at one point Piero and Taku even suggested we drop the song from the set-list entirely since it had become too much of a downer.
Then one Friday night, just as we were about to go on stage and I was by myself getting ready in our little dressing room, there was a knock on the door by the manager of Rockmania saying there was someone there to see me.
“Here he is,” he said in a rushed voice to a tiny girl who was looking down at the floor nervously, her straight, black hair almost completely covering her face. Based on her size, I would have taken her for an elementary school kid, but assumed she must be at least fifteen since she was carrying a high school bag.
“You guys are on in a couple of minutes,” the manager added with a glance at me and left us alone.
“Hi there,” I said in my friendliest voice, hoping she would relax.
“Hi,” she replied, hardly audibly, with a polite nod on the head.
A smile came across my face as I was struck by the contrast between her well-polished black loafers - surely part of her school uniform - and the ripped blue jeans decorated with large security pins and a gray Led Zeppelin t-shirt with holes that she was wearing.
“Thanks for coming tonight,” I continued.
She nodded again, and after a moment’s silence, as if she was getting ready to say something that she had rehearsed many times, I heard her tiny voice again, shaking somewhat, “No…I’m the one to thank you.”
“Thank me?” I said confused, taking a step closer to hear her better.
She raised her head so that her hair parted in the front, and looked straight at me with pitch black, large, round eyes, and said, “For this.”
My mouth opened as I stared at the black harmonica in her hand.
“Erika!” I burst out.
Overwhelmed with joy, relief, and surprise all at the same time, instead of taking the harmonica, I reached out and hugged her, at which I felt her thin shoulders tightening up.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you,” I said, and let go, adding “It’s just that I was afraid that you were…I mean, I’m just so happy to see that you’re well.”
She smiled gently at me, and as she did, I realized how pretty she was and how much she resembled her mother, only slimmer.
“Thank you, it was very difficult for me. I don’t know how many thousand times I listened to your song. It seemed to give me energy somehow…to go on,” she said, and a slight red shimmer came across her face as she turned her gaze down.
Just as I was going to tell her how much that meant to me, the sharp voice of the manager interrupted us, “Alright, it’s time!”
Erika put the harmonica in my hand, looked up at me with a warm smile and said, “I think you need this more than me now.”
She turned and walked out, just as Piero and Taku appeared, and the next moment I found myself standing on stage playing the first chords, overwhelmed by emotions to the point that I even struggled to remember the lyrics.
As we went through our set, I kept trying to find Erika out there, but it was too chaotic with people jumping around, and her being a head shorter than everyone, it wasn’t until I pulled out my harmonica for the ballad and things calmed down a bit that I finally spotted her standing in the back.
A smile came across my face when our eyes met, and although I never felt comfortable speaking to the audience between songs and hardly ever did, there was something very special about this moment, almost as if my pure emotions took control of me as I said into the mic, “I want to dedicate this next song to a very special person, a real fighter; my new friend, Erika.”
As we looked at each other through the crowd, one of the light guys put a spotlight directly on Erika as she stood there all by herself, and straightaway everyone in the crowd turned towards her. She smiled timidly in the light, and as I watched her, so young and full of energy in spite of looking so frail, still with her whole life ahead of her, the profoundness of the fact that I had played a small part in her recovery, her survival, started to dawn upon me. The song that I had written to help myself overcome my own struggles when I was around Erika’s age - each tone, each word, each nuance chosen with such emotional precision - had somehow directly helped her, too, and even though I still knew hardly anything about her, it didn’t matter; there was no denying the bond that now existed between us that only the two of us could ever understand.
“Thank you, Erika, for making me realize that my music has a purpose…a much bigger purpose than I ever understood before,” I said, suddenly feeling so moved that I had to look down for a second, pretending I was finding the right fret on the guitar.
After gathering myself, I struck the first chord, and when I looked up my eyes met Erika’s again as she was standing in a halo of light smiling at me with her hands clasped in front of her, head slightly tilted, her eyes shining.
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