Chuck Howe’s latest book, If I Had Wings, These Windmills Would Be Dead, has been released from Unknown Press. It’s an insightful biography composed of short, interlocking chapters. Here we present an exclusive preview, the chapter “The Burning of Nag Champa”
Laura was a beautiful blond from the mid west, with the perfect hippie vibe and fashion. She always had a stick of Nag Champa burning wherever she went, and a beautiful rainbow of an aura around her. She always seemed to have a sly smile, like she knew even more about the joke than anyone else. Of course I pretty much fell for her the moment I saw her. I was feeling odd and out of place in a new city on the other side of the country. I am sure she was, too, having just moved out to Eugene herself, but I still felt like she was out of my league. That may have been how I eventually got her. I wasn’t expecting sex, so I just treated her like a friend. She was really cool; I simply enjoyed spending time with her.
Once her boyfriend from Indiana, Russ, came and moved in with her, I figured all chances were lost. I ended up hooking up with a lesbian who lived in my dorm. She claimed I was the only man she had ever been with, and I believed her, until I heard a guy down the hall telling the exact same story.
After the first term, my roommate and I were looking to move out of the dorms. So were a few others. Laura’s place was really too small for her and Russ, not to mention their friend Chris who moved out from Indiana too. My friend, Lenny, had called from New York. He was looking to move out to Oregon, so we all went out and found a huge 8 bedroom house in the hills. A total of twelve of us, from New York, Indiana, Chicago, and Finland all moved in, half of us having never met any of the others before.
After a month in the house, Laura and Russ broke up. They both still lived in the house, but in different rooms now. I made a couple of halfhearted attempts at flirtation, but still really felt like she was out of my league. Something worked because a few days later Lenny came down to our room with a wicked smile on his face.
“You’re an asshole dude,” he said with a laugh.
“What did I do this time?” I asked looking up from whatever school book I was pretending to read.
“Laura is completely into you, dick,” he added the dick just to let me know that I was, in fact, a dick for allowing a girl to be into me.
I immediately threw my book down and ran up the stairs. I took a deep breath to try to regain my cool before knocking on her door. “Come in,” her voice floated through the door. I opened it up to find her sitting on the floor with candles and, of course, Nag Champa burning all around her. On the ground in front of her there was a dark piece of cloth with a bunch of tiny oval shaped white stones on it. There were three directly in front of her and she was reading a book.
“I’m sorry, am I interrupting something?” I asked.
“No, come on in. I was just reading my Runes.” I gave her a quizzical look as I closed the door behind me and walked into the room. “Have a seat, when I finish reading mine we’ll do yours.” I sat across from her as she finished reading. The 1978 Dead show from Cornell was playing in the background. She had it on CD. She had more Dead bootleg CDs than I had tapes. One more reason I thought she was way out of my league. She finished reading and placed her three stones face down with the rest and then mixed them up as if I would know what was what. “These are like Viking tarot cards. Now put your hands on the stones. Feel them all. If you feel really strongly about one, pull it out and turn it over in front of you until you have three stones.”
I took it as seriously as a natural born skeptic can. She obviously put some weight into what these stones told her, and she was some sort of mystic goddess, so who knows what these stones really meant. I had to choose carefully.
One of them seemed to give off a little more heat than the others. I chose that one first. The next was a harder choice. I felt no attachment to any of them. Suddenly one felt a little colder than the rest, so I chose that one. The final one I more or less picked at random. They each had strange markings on them and Laura immediately went to her book.
I don’t remember exactly what any of them were specifically, but the gist I got from all three was, “Whatever you are thinking about doing, DON”T DO IT!”
So of course I leaned over and kissed her. She got up, locked the bedroom door and blew out the candles on her way back to me. She left the Nag Champa to burn.
The next morning, as I sneaked out of her room before anyone else in the house woke up, I felt my mind start to race and cycle. Russ was not only a friend of mine at this point, but he still lived in the house and he still really loved Laura. He was going to find out eventually. It didn’t seem like it was going to be a one night only thing, at least I really hoped not. Laura was too beautiful and cool and awesome to let go. I felt like I had to be with her from then on. There was no other choice really.
Russ was a great guy though. He was a country boy with a country twang to his voice. Quick with a joke, loved to laugh and was pretty much loved by everyone. He was also huge. Not fat, tall, well built and surprisingly light on his feet. One night he used interpretative dance to explain why the Dead’s version of “Dancing in the Streets” was such a good tune, a vision that still stays with me today. Russ was a teddy bear, but I really didn’t want to see him angry, and he was going to be angry as hell when he found out about us.
Laura was all smiles to me the next day. Russ was there, so she didn’t give any obvious signs of affection, but enough to know she was looking for more. That evening she and Russ got into a huge fight. I was sure she told him about us as he went storming out of the house, not talking to anyone else on the way out. I immediately went into her room. She closed and locked the door and started crying.
She had told Russ that they were over. She hadn’t told him about us yet. He apparently assumed that they were just having trouble and would get back together. She told him that wasn’t going to happen. I think most people thought that they were meant for each other, as I did. I figured she would be back together with him when they first split up, too. Even after she fell into my arms again, I still wasn’t sure. And that started up the cycle of thoughts that just wouldn’t leave my head all over again.
We tried not to let anyone know at first, but living with 10 other people, I am sure the news spread a lot faster than I even knew. Finally the night came where Russ knocked on Laura’s door, only to find Laura and me sitting there listening to the Dead with candles and Nag Champa burning. We weren’t doing anything, but the look of guilt on both of our faces must have given us away. To his great credit, he just turned around and slammed the door behind him as he left. I felt like shit, I almost would have felt better if he had hit me. It should have been freeing. We didn’t need to sneak around anymore, but my head still kept spinning.
I had to keep her. That was my only real thought. I started following her around everywhere like a lost puppy. I became very withdrawn around others or at least felt that way. My only thoughts were that I had to keep her. Of course all that accomplished was to drive her away.
I saw myself becoming all the things I never wanted to be. I became jealous of everyone and everything that competed with me for her time. Like her job or her classes. I had never been a jealous, over protective boyfriend before, and I have never been one since. I hated myself for becoming that person. I could see what was happening but I couldn’t stop it.
So instead of being that asshole I became completely withdrawn. I didn’t speak to anyone, not even Laura. That just drove her right back to Russ. I knew it was happening and felt a helpless rage at the whole situation. The light came when I talked with my parents about my brother graduating from college. They wanted me to come back for a bit and would buy me a ticket if I knew when I wanted to go. I would leave in two weeks and planned it out so I would spend a month back in New York. When I told Laura, something very odd happened. We both just knew it would be over as soon as I left. We never said anything, we just both knew. I knew deep down it was for the best, but still didn’t like it. Still, it was almost like things were much better with us those last two weeks, or maybe it was just that I had come to accept that the relationship had failed.
About three days before I left for New York, while Laura was at work, I picked up the phone and called an ex-girlfriend. She was going to be home for the summer. I already had plans with her for dinner one night.
I heard the day I left town Laura was back with Russ, but I had a great month in New York. When I came back out to Eugene I moved right into a co-op right off of campus. Laura and Russ had already moved into a house on the other side of town. Russ came to the co-op all the time. We never actually talked about what had happened, but things were good between us. I didn’t see Laura as much and when I did, we were always very friendly, but I still felt those pains of obsession.
Eventually I moved back to New York, and met other women. I had learned my lesson, I played things cool. For years my stomach would knot up when I thought of Laura but after a time, I gave it up to the forgiving mantra of “the stupidity of youth.” I had always hoped I would run into Russ at a Dead show. Years later Laura and I got in touch. It was good to know she had some fond memories of our time together; most of my memories were of anxiety and frustration. The only good memory I had was the smell of Nag Champa. She told me that she and Russ had lost contact, but learned from a mutual friend that Russ passed away a few years earlier. I wouldn’t run into him again, but I still see him dancing whenever I am at a show.
Chuck Howe’s book If I had Wings, These Windmills Would Be Dead, is available from Unknown Press at Amazon.com. Click here to buy your copy today.
(Top image © Flickr user Vanessa Pike-Russell)