"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)
Aaron and I met at the pool table in the Atlanta Hilton. I noticed him because he was watching me play terrible pool. He was tall and broad shouldered, in baggy pants and a button-down. A red bandanna was tucked into his back pocket. We were at a professional conference, far from both our homes. It was the end of the second day, and people were filling the hotel bar, discussing the events and workshops, still assessing each other. Everyone at the bar, me included, gave off an aura of trying too hard, of having carefully considered each item of clothing and the message it might send. Aaron, though, looked urban and educated as if it were effortless. (Aaron is not his real name, by the way.)
He bought me the first drink after I managed to scratch and knock the 7-ball onto the floor in a single shot. By the second drink, I’d already decided I liked him. There was something about the way he looked at me that made me feel attractive, pretty even.
Pretty is not something I feel often. I’m thick, curvy, fat. I long ago mastered the art of pretending to be comfortable when I wasn’t, so that even in that bar in Atlanta, I smiled and flirted with a borrowed confidence. Then Aaron touched the small of my back, and everything felt authentic in a way it hadn’t quite before. It wasn’t that I hadn’t dated or had other men in my life — at 33, I had a long list of former suitors. I’d even been married for a decade, and had three kids. But I understood the reasons why those men were drawn to me, and it was never my physicality.
That night, as Aaron and I walked all over the hotel, we kissed in anonymous hallways. He was 43, 10 years my senior, and had a distinguished career. But he was youthful, too. He tickled me in the elevator, and held my hand like we were middle-schoolers, all sweaty and nervous. When we said goodnight at 3 a.m. in the hotel lobby, he slid his hands over my shoulders, gathered my hair gently at the nape of my neck, then kissed me. After he left, I walked down the hall outside my room, drunk on the idea of being lovely to someone. The hallway converged into an atrium of glass and city lights and elevators. I sat for an hour watching the elevators carry people up and down, and stealing glances at my reflection in the glass, something I rarely did.
We spent the next night together, in his room. The morning after, as we sat in a nearby coffee shop, we retold the story of meeting each other in the bar, the way couples often do.
“You played terrible pool, but you were so cute,” he said.
I laughed. “Yeah, but I didn’t think you were looking at me. I thought you had to be watching some other girl.”
He smiled. “There were other girls there, but not enough meat on their bones for me. I like women like you.” He laid one hand on my thigh and I, for the first time in my life, felt desired.
That night I joined him at a cocktail party, and when I walked into the room, he looked at me, then stopped talking. He smiled, his expression filled with affection, and held his hand out to me like I was a prize. I had seen other men act this way with women, but I was an outsider watching other people’s love, wondering at the alchemy of physical attraction. I would have done almost anything for that moment.
I’ve hovered around a size 20 or 22, sometimes bigger, most of my life. As a kid, my dad told me once, “Girls need to be pretty or smart to get through life. And you’re smart, which is better in the long run.” A few years later, when I entered my teens, I heard my parents talking about me late one night. My mom, in a voice I barely recognized, said, “That girl’s damn fat. No one will ever love her like that.”
As I grew up, I understood the implication: Someone might love me, but it would always be for something other than my looks. So I began funneling my energy into becoming clever and smart. Usually, men made apologies for my body, explicit or implicit. When my husband said, “I’d love you if you were a brain in a bottle,” he meant it as a compliment, though I could not miss what it implied about the rest of me. And when another boyfriend said, “I warned my parents that you were ‘big’” as we drove to meet them for dinner, I didn’t get angry. It had hurt, but I got it. Now, finding myself physically beautiful in Aaron’s estimation was both foreign and wonderful, a gift I never thought I’d have.
After the conference, Aaron and I flew to our separate sides of the country, but we talked every few days, sent emails constantly. Each time, he’d tell me how pretty I was.
Almost immediately we made plans for him to fly out. We would spend the weekend in Portland together where he’d made reservations at a swanky hotel.
“I can’t wait to see you,” he said.
“You know what would be so sweet?” His voice dropped to a husky whisper. “If you’d wear a skirt for me.”
I paused. Who wants to see my legs, I thought. These things, thick and ugly, scattered with spider veins? The way he talked to me was unfamiliar and his request made me wince. It was deviant.
“What’s wrong?” he said. He could hear my hesitation.
I thought of the nights in Atlanta, the way his longing was so tangible there. “Nothing’s wrong,” I said.
Later that week, I shopped for skirts. I found one: red silk patterned with poppies and cut just below the knee. In the dressing room, I turned in the mirror and blushed. But my stomach was tight with anticipation, a strange mix of embarrassment and hope.
Three weeks later, Aaron was in Oregon. Because I’m a single mother, we hadn’t planned to see each other until we went to Portland. But that first night in town, when he was supposed to be staying with mutual friends, he called me from a bar. “I want to see you,” he said. It was a little past midnight, but I was awake, and I wanted to see him, too.
Within a half-hour, a cab dropped him in my driveway. I stood in the front door, half smiling until I noticed he couldn’t navigate the steps. I took his arm. He reeked of liquor. I imagined telling him I was tired, and that he should sleep it off and I’d see him tomorrow. But the cab pulled away, throwing long shadows over my yard, and there was nothing to do but bring him inside.
He grabbed me around the waist before I shut the door and buried his face in my hair. “I missed you,” he said, a little too loudly. He pulled me toward the couch.
I felt not unsafe but on guard, wary. “Shhh. The kids,” I said. This was an excuse, a way to defuse the situation because it had become wrong in some small way.
“They won’t wake up,” he said. He was still too loud.
I maneuvered him to the couch, and he put his arms around me, kissed me, and for a few minutes everything seemed almost right. But his mouth was sloppy, tasted like tequila and cigarettes, and there was a persistence to the way he touched me I hadn’t notice before. I tried to remember what it was about him I had liked so much. He grabbed my hair and it hurt a little, and then he turned my neck at an odd angle.
“Be careful,” I whispered.
He smiled, and for a minute I felt comforted, because I could see the old Aaron. So I kissed him back, ran my hands over his chest even though I didn’t feel exactly like doing that. I told myself I was nervous, that I’d feel like it in a minute.
I slid off my pajama bottoms, and he stood up, unbuttoned his pants quickly, had them around his ankles in a second. He climbed on top of me without any warning.
“Wait a second,” I said. “We need a condom.”
“Come on, sweetie.” The words were thick, slurred a little. His arms were on mine, and he felt too heavy, his body insistent.
“Aaron,” I said, “wait.” I said it politely. He didn’t respond. He pushed my legs apart, and then he was inside me. “Stop,” I said, like I was asking for an extra glass of water in a fancy restaurant. He turned his face away and pinned me with his right forearm. He kept repeating, “Yeah, yeah. You’re so hot,” in a voice that terrified me, as though it had no connection to the reality of the moment and no recognition of me.
I told him louder, because now everything hurt: my stomach hurt, my mouth hurt. With one arm I pushed against his chest. He turned his face and tried to kiss me, his mouth covering my nose and his teeth banging against mine. He gripped my shoulders with both hands, holding me down. I struggled to breathe.
I thought about my kids asleep in the house and that if they heard me, heard him, they’d wake up. I kicked him and bit his arm. He stopped moving and pushed off me.
He got off the couch, moved around the coffee table slowly, almost gently. When I realized he was looking for his pants, I was flooded with relief.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he said.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t crying. My shoulder felt off, like it had been set into my collarbone wrong. There was blood in my mouth.
“I come all this way for this?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I meant it. I was sorry that I had disappointed him, sorry that I wasn’t as hot or as pretty or as willing as I was supposed to be.
“What is wrong with you?” He repeated this again and again as he dressed. I didn’t answer. “You’re supposed to be smart, Heather,” he said. In his mouth, my name sounded dirty. As he looked for his shoes, he ran into a bookshelf, and one of my children stirred.
I stood. “You need to leave,” I said.
“You won’t tell me what I did,” Aaron said, “but I guess ignorance is bliss.”
I called him a cab and dressed in the light canted in from the streetlamps. Then I stood on the other side of the room, arms crossed, while he mumbled insults. “You screwed up,” he said as the cab pulled into the driveway. “You really screwed this up.”
I did, I thought. As the cab backed out of the driveway, I could hear the self-condemnation in my mind already. But I didn’t think that I had dressed “too slutty” or “drank too much,” reasons other people use to explain away a rapist. Instead, it was: You bought a skirt. You thought you could be comfortable in your own skin. Who were you kidding?
A year later, I started another relationship with a good, decent man named Manoj. Manoj, incidentally or not, means “love of the mind” in Hindi. He was the kind of man who held doors open, and would cover my wallet with his hand whenever I tried to open it. He told me about his homeland and his parents and sister there. He taught me phrases in Hindi and Tamil. When we finally slept together, he cupped my face in his hands. “You’re so beautiful,” he said.
“Don’t say that.” Say that you love me for my clever jokes, or that you’d like me even if I was a brain in a bottle.
He shushed me. He thought it was false modesty, but I could feel my body stiffening. To desire to be desired, as a woman — as a fat woman — was too costly. Even now, five years later, I know this. In my bedroom that night, Manoj kissed my closed eyes, and called me beautiful again.
I’m already gone, I wanted to say. I’m already a million miles away.
Heather Ryan is a freelance writer working on a memoir about traveling through the U.S. with her three children. She also teaches writing.More Heather Ryan.
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)