“Every gun makes its own tune.”
— Blondie, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
“Ross” (*see disclaimer at the end) had almost been hunted down in an old hotel in Jerusalem, drank beer with a midget in Berlin, and slept on the deck of a boat on the way to Crete. He’d traveled the entirety of Route 66 and taken photos of every ghost motel and café. He nearly moved to Mexico to marry a girl. He owned an assortment of World War I rifles and vintage handguns. He’d read everything and met everyone.
He’d done so much more in his life than I could ever imagine. He was a modern day cowboy: a man of adventures, tough and unemotional, living by his own moral code. By the time we started dating in 2005, he was living alone, with a twin mattress on the bedroom floor and one sitting chair in the living room.
He smoked pipes with exotic tobacco and wore a dark red smoking robe. On one of our first dates, he dripped hot wax from a burning candle onto my leg — that’s the kind of thing that seemed to turn him on. We trespassed into an apartment pool in the middle of the night and went skinny dipping, and I stayed warm afterward wearing his black, leather punk rock jacket. We broke into a refrigerator in the back of a music club that no longer exists in Austin, drank some of the beer, and yelled profanities and nonsense at passersby through a hole in the wall.
Solitary, elusive, and self-reliant, he was the incorrigible bachelor. Well, not exactly 100% self-reliant. I’d known he had spent periods of time – although I never could figure out how long exactly – crashing back home with his parents in the Bay Area, with a friend in Seattle, with an ex-girlfriend in Austin. Still, he was a brilliant writer and a musician. And he lived on the edge of danger. The kind of guy your parents warn you to stay away from.
In the movies, the John Wayne cowboys might eventually settle down on the farm and marry the girl. But not the Clint Eastwoods. Oh no, those aren’t the kinds of cowboys for a nice girl. That kind of cowboy shows up out of nowhere, kills off the bad guys (and maybe some of the good guys while he’s at it), and then rides off into the sunset. If he has a love interest, he might stick around for a while and have a moment or two of tenderness. And even though I was convinced that Ross could never possibly stick around, he moved into my house with all his books, LPs, and antique collectibles.
The walls of my house had mostly been blank before he moved in. Up went the exotic native masks, a vintage map of Paris, posters of heavy metal rock bands and western films. Ross had not only played in a heavy metal band himself, but he’d also played Dixieland, gypsy jazz, old cowboy and western and swing, and finally making his own music, writing and playing his own tunes.
For about five years, a larger-than-life image of Clint Eastwood stared me in the face every time I walked out of my house. It hung to the right of the front door, reminding me that every day that went by, every year that went by, I was still not making my own tune. Yeah sure, I liked Dixieland jazz and swing music long before I met Ross. But those aren’t the tunes I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about were the big things I wanted: publishing my work, traveling abroad, maybe having children and raising a family. That tune didn’t harmonize with Ross’ way of life, so I put everything on hold to help him. The money I could have saved for myself I instead spent on him – his music recording projects and his living expenses – for nearly five years. I was living in his shadow, living vicariously through his hopes and dreams. I was a mockingbird, my life simply a hollow imitation of his.
Ross loved old westerns, fascinated by the image of the cowboy, living by his own moral code, rough talking, booze drinking, hopelessly unromantic. He’d laugh at the parts that weren’t funny – the parts where the characters were being cruel and violent, especially to women. I’d laugh, too, even if it felt wrong.
His hair used to be short and well-groomed, like a young John Wayne, but over the years, it grew out long and unkempt. His cowboy hat bent out of shape, soiled with dirt and sweat. For one of his birthdays, he received an axe from a friend, and he actually used it to chop wood. He was an extra on the film True Grit and barely needed to change his appearance. Even his music became about the wild west: of Texas Rangers, Gold Rush explorers, and desert misfits.
By the end of our relationship, he was no longer the charming and mysterious cowboy, but rather a desolate mountain man, a feral explorer at heart, unpredictable explosive, no longer trapping anything except himself, trapped in a suburban house without a car and a job, his music playing opportunities dwindling to dust.
In the meantime, he’d trapped me, too, as I silently screamed for a way to get out, for a way to express the things I wanted – the heroic cowboy, the one who would protect and take care of me. But I was protecting and taking care of him instead.
So I gave him until high noon, shots were fired in the corral, and although much was destroyed in the process, no one died. He’s ridden off into the sunset, out west to California with all his guns and guitars. And Clint Eastwood no longer guards the entrance to my house. I’m free to make my own tunes.
*Disclaimer: “Ross” may or may not accurately resemble the non-fictional character he is based on, as I may or may not have slightly embellished some of the details, as a result of blurry memories from an emotionally unstable decade of my life. But for the most part, it’s all based on true life.