"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In early 2000, I filed for divorce from a husband I truly loved.
We’d been married for more than a dozen years and had three children. I’d known him since college; his family was as familiar to me as my own. The sex was still good and frequent. He could fix anything. Every day, he made me laugh. But he was an addict.
I knew this when we married. At 20, I’d believed love would cure him. Then it looked like our babies might: He wrapped them in blankets and walked around cradling them in his enormous arms like someone had just handed him the secret to life. I had to beg him to put them in their cribs at night, but even while I was insisting, I glowed inside. Together, the children and I were helping him beat back the monster — I was sure.
But over the next several years, there were signs he was, in fact, losing the battle. Bills for joint credit cards I’d never signed for would arrive. My husband lost dozens of jobs. Money disappeared. Occasionally, he too would disappear, then come back days or weeks later, gray-faced and contrite, unable to explain where he’d been. But according to the people I met at Al-Anon, all this was typical. They would sit in their church basement circles, smiling grimly and drinking decaf out of Styrofoam cups.
“The horns in his head fit the holes in yours,” one woman told me. This struck me as oddly, perversely sexual. Also true.
And it seemed reason enough to stay with a man who was smart and funny and good most of the time, until I came home from a late class and found him at the dining room table pouring tequila shots for himself and our 9-year-old son. That night was the end.
It was a cool, rainy spring. My children and I lived in a big, old Craftsman house with a porch swing, and that’s where I sat at night, under a blanket, staring for hours at the hazy moon. During the day, I acted frantic and happy. I taught my freshman composition classes and took extra freelance writing jobs and told the kids that everything would be fine. They knew I was lying. I never slept, my hands shook, I’d dropped more than 20 pounds.
One afternoon about a month after my husband moved out, I was at the elementary school when a little girl passed by, weeping. Suddenly I, too, began to cry and once I’d started I couldn’t stop. I was making a scene; children were staring at me on their way to the bus. Then a woman appeared, shapely and dark-haired with a low, wet, whispery voice. Before I could object — tell her I was fine, pick up my kids and leave — she steered me through a door, into the school’s utility room, and hugged me hard against her soft body. After she let go, she pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her sweater, lit a couple and handed me one.
It was the most gallant thing anyone had done for me in a long time. Of course, I knew I shouldn’t be huddled behind a furnace, smoking my first cigarette in a dozen years with a kindergarten teacher. But it was warm and snug and deliciously naughty. I poured out my story, telling Gisele (although that wasn’t her real name) all about my divorce, about the man I still loved who drank and drugged and spent all our money until there was simply no way to stay married anymore.
I breathed in the haze of her smoky, sweet perfume and went on babbling all about my children, especially the middle one, who’d suffered most because he felt guilty, like he was the reason his father had to leave.
Her eyes as dark and melty as a Labrador’s, Gisele leaned down to kiss my cheek. “When can I meet them?” she asked.
I brought her home that night. And our house lit up.
Prior to Gisele, dinnertime was sad. The children and I sat around a table that felt strangely off balance, their father’s absence even larger than his presence had been.
But now, Gisele would drive over after work, picking up the kids from their various activities along the way. She brought flowers, as well as wine and cigarettes that we would share on the corner of the porch while the children watched TV. A wonderful cook and a lusty eater, Gisele drank brandy and played games with the kids while I cleaned up. Then I would pour myself a cup of leftover coffee and watch from the kitchen doorway: my 5-year-old daughter on Gisele’s lap, my 9-year-old son consulting her about his homework, my timid older boy approaching her — actually reaching out to touch her — and getting caught up in a raucous hug.
She had a husband of her own somewhere in the background, an older guy (46 to our 34) who was underemployed and overly fond of pot. He was sweet and laconic but so stoned by evening’s end, he didn’t much notice whether or not she was home.
March warmed into a lilac-filled April. Nearly every night it was the two of us, Gisele and I. Raising my children, making elaborate meals, sitting side by side on my front porch swing. I’d gained back 10 pounds and started to feel actual hope.
One chilly night she put her arm around me and said, “I’m straight. At least I thought I was. I’ve never been in love with a woman before.”
There was a haunting ache in my thighs. “I haven’t, either,” I said. And suddenly everything made sense.
I’d always believed that liberated people were essentially bisexual. Plus, my closest friend in grad school was a lesbian with a shaved head and a gap between her teeth, a beautiful creature who looked like a cross between Sinéad O’Connor and Dennis the Menace and lived with her life partner on a five-acre hobby farm. Their place was homier than anyone else’s I knew: books and braided rugs and tasteful framed posters on the walls. When my friend’s daughter came for the summer, she went horseback riding and lived in the warm enclave of two gentle, forgetful, artistic moms.
Compared with the last dark days of my marriage, this looked idyllic. And it’s exactly how I imagined life would work out for Gisele and me. My children loved her; they could count on her. I was arriving home to find domestic notes — “Gone shopping. Max needed pants. Love, G” — tacked to the refrigerator.
She took my hand one evening near Easter. It was warm but not yet muggy, and the crickets were playing their song in the bushes below. “I’m ready,” she said. And she told me how she’d made a plan: Saturday, while my kids were with their grandparents, we would watch “Henry and June,” paying special attention to the love scene between Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros, the dark-eyed Portuguese actress portraying Anaïs Nin. We would split a bottle of wine. Then, we would go to bed.
The weekend came. I was painfully nervous; being alone with Gisele felt strange. We loaded the movie into my ancient VCR and poured two glasses of Rioja. The women on the screen danced and drank and smoked. They slid together, manicured fingers stroking soft skin, graceful necks intertwined, tongues touching.
Suddenly, Gisele’s hand was on my leg. It traveled up, farther, high along the inside of my thigh, and I felt … nothing.
Disappointed, heart pounding with shame, I concentrated. I was an open-minded woman! I was in love! I could be turned on if I just committed myself to the task. But while the actresses moved silkily together and groaned with unabated lust, I remained like a block of wood.
Gisele leaned toward me with an open mouth, but she must have seen the stricken look on my face. She retreated kindly. It was too fast, she said. I just needed time.
So we went on as before. The awkwardness faded after a few days, but for me even the small stirrings of electricity were gone. Now that the mystery was over, so was the thrill. I’d come within a millimeter of kissing Gisele, but rather than daydreaming about that breathy closeness, I felt like someone who’d swerved at the last minute and narrowly avoided hitting a tree.
Still, by most standards ours was a healthy relationship: I had someone in my life who loved me reliably, who was around to help when one of the kids was sick or having a tantrum or needing to make a diorama. Sure, there was the matter of her husband. I felt guilty about this, but Gisele assured me that their marriage had been failing for a long time. Besides, she and I weren’t actually doing anything that couldn’t be filed under the category of best friends.
This, however, was fast becoming a problem. One night, Gisele came home and admitted she’d been contemplating an affair with a male teacher at her school but said she wouldn’t have been tempted if I’d been able, or willing, to love her in every way. I was torn. While I was pretty sure by this time that I simply preferred men — their shape and smell and muscular forearms — I also knew that I’d miss Gisele terribly if she were no longer around.
More important, my children had grown attached to her. I had not just allowed but also encouraged them to do this. And I couldn’t bear the thought of excising a second caring adult from their lives.
So this time, I devised a plan.
I had a teaching job coming up in Baltimore and would need to drive out in early June. Gisele would be done with school the day before I was to leave. Would she like to accompany me? I asked. Alone together on the road, we could work out the true nature of our relationship. She agreed.
The day we set off was sunshiny and warm. We took turns driving, stopping for coffee every couple of hours and listening to “best of” tapes from the ’70s. When night fell we got a hotel room with one double bed, sleeping in our T-shirts and underwear curled together like possums.
We traveled well together, and I added this to my mental list of assets, resolving to try even harder to make this thing work. Perhaps, I thought, the change of scenery would allow me to loosen up.
The second night, we stayed at her family home. I met her mother, father and younger sister. Shortly after a late dinner, I went to bed. Around 3 a.m., I awoke coughing and went out to investigate. The smoke was so thick in the kitchen, I thought at first there had been a fire. But it was only the three women — mother and two sisters — sitting around a table with an overflowing ashtray and a mostly empty liter of booze.
We moved on, staying the third night in an Allegheny mountain hotel. After a cheap meal in a diner, Gisele insisted on stopping at a local grocery store, where she loaded up on chocolate, cheese, ice cream and beer. Back in our room, she told me about the eating disorder that was often triggered by time spent with her family. Then she spread everything out on the bed, switched on the TV and ate until she was glassy-eyed.
We arrived in Baltimore the next evening. By this time, there were several things bothering me. Gisele had been difficult to awaken that morning and had refused to talk or eat all day. She’d needed to pull over every half-hour or so for a cigarette and bathroom break. She’d gone through an entire case of Diet Coke.
But once we reached the city she became cheerful again. It was our final night together — Gisele would be flying out the following day — so we decided to go out to a really nice place. On the deck of a restaurant overlooking the Inner Harbor, as we ate table-tossed Caesar salads and an enormous platter of fresh, steamed crabs, Gisele told me all about her recent bankruptcy. Her second, she said, shrugging, as she reached for a snow-white leg.
Then she signaled the waiter with one finger and ordered another double Courvoisier. Her fifth.
By the time the bill arrived, night had settled over the water and Gisele had switched to coffee with Baileys Irish Cream. There were lights twinkling from the trees of the Hard Rock Cafe. I opened the folder to look at the total — a number too ridiculously high for me to think about at that moment — and slipped in my Visa.
Then I took Gisele’s hand and held it under the table and we sat that way for a long time, listening to the happy restaurant buzz and the soft sound of the lapping waves. She stroked my wrist, which was comforting. And finally, slowly, I understood. Gisele and I might never have been technically compatible. Sexually, we didn’t match. But the horns in her head fit perfectly into the holes in mine nonetheless.
Ann Bauer is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of a new novel, "The Forever Marriage."More Ann Bauer.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)