"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)
“Whatever you do,” my divorce lawyer said, her hand on the small of my back as we walked into the courtroom, “don’t forget the three P’s. We want you to look pregnant, poor and plain.” She smiled as she took me in: I’d done well. I looked about 13 months pregnant, instead of the seven I was. Emotional eating is a highly underrated experience. “Let’s lose this,” she said, as she unbuckled my Patek Philippe watch, the last vestige of what I had been — a CEO’s wife.
Manhattan may boast bloated salaries, Indian food delivered at 4 a.m. and the glorious perfume of Central Park in autumn and of damp and dying leaves commingled with the smoke of Halal carts, but as I aged, I learned these perks came with a huge anthropological flaw: its ratio of men to women. Statistics cite our city’s population of single women as being 210,000 more than its available men. It feels more like one man for every six or seven women. This biological trip-up is easy to ignore in a Neverland of middle-aged Peter Pans and Wendys. As I enjoyed an exciting career at CNN and Bloomberg TV, matched by an invigorating social life, my 20s and early 30s blew past me in a torrent of late nights at the Spotted Pig, front row seats at the Marc Jacobs show and Moet at Rose Bar. Did I mention Michael Stipe once hand-rolled me a “cigarette” at 60 Thompson? I am finally good enough, I thought, as I considered my boozy, status-driven pursuits.
But inside my body, at those velvet-roped parties, my eggs were getting older.
On a trip home to Long Valley, N.J., one Thanksgiving, my mom and I were standing in the checkout line at the local A&P, and I saw at least three girls who had attended my high school. They were holding sons and daughters while all I had in my arms was a frozen, organic turkey.
It was like that moment when a new word is introduced into your vocabulary and suddenly you hear it everywhere around you. I no longer noticed Alexander Wang bags on my female counterparts. Instead, my attention turned to the women marching down Madison with Ergo carriers, their babies’ teeth shining like pearls through wet, red mouths.
I restrategized. Instead of smartly walking myself to a shrink to examine why my self-worth was intrinsically tied to how I measured up, I was determined to find a husband — the clear route to a baby. With friends, I’d scour the city’s male-heavy locales. Late nights at a smoke-filled cigar bar netted me nothing more than the card of a CPA whose ring finger clearly had the tan line of a wedding band. I would hit buckets of golf balls, badly, at Chelsea Piers to no effect. New York City’s eligible bachelors didn’t want to settle down with me. Why would they when they could be kissing the neck of a 19-year-old Croatian model at the Dream Hotel?
I networked tirelessly with my business contacts to send eligible men my way. Miraculously, one of the TV anchors I’d known set me up with a CEO I’d actually placed on my show at Bloomberg. It seemed like divine providence. Just weeks into dating, he was asking if I wanted a family, if I’d move for love. He lived in San Diego, but promised we’d always have a New York apartment. “Would you mind being bicoastal?” he asked? “Not at all,” I shrugged, pinching myself. There is a Santa, Virginia.
Unlike other men, this one gave me attention. Maybe too much. He was upset on the nights I wanted to burrow alone in my Tudor City apartment with an indie movie and Thai 51 takeout. When I needed a night off, I’d lie and say I had a work commitment. One night he caught me. “How was your dinner downtown?” he asked. “Fine.” I replied. “I walked by your apartment and could see you watching TV. Why would you lie?”
Instead of questioning why he would stare into my windows, my twisted sense of self found it flattering. He might be the jealous type, but damn it, he loves me. In just four months, I was engaged.
Months into our union, it was a battle royale. Arguments lasted weeks, and the tiniest thing could set him off, such as balling his socks instead of lying them flat on top of one another and folding them in thirds. These offenses were met with the worst kind of punishment. I was ignored. Utterly. Like a piece of furniture in our Lexington Avenue penthouse, I just sat there, collecting dust. When I felt like leaving, I calculated how much time it would take to meet another potential mate, date, get engaged and the rest. The longing to have a child felt like a peach pit stuck in my throat, hurting every time I swallowed. After more than a year, I finally conceived.
What I’d failed to find with my husband — love — I found in piles with my sweet boy. I stared at his pink, puffy mouth as he slept, mesmerized by the way it opened and shut like a fish, sniffing its milky exhalations. The frequency of my husband’s business trips had increased so much that we barely saw each other. Instead of worrying, I felt grateful to be alone with my son. Those honeyed days were spent at the Children’s Museum or Music With James lessons. I was finally clad in a periwinkle Ergo of my own.
The interactions with my husband were infrequent and rarely pleasant. It came as quite a surprise when I conceived again, still breast-feeding my first. The public service announcements were right. It really does take only one time. With a second on the way, things deteriorated further. As I sat in my obstetrician’s waiting room, I avoided looking at the ardent husbands massaging their wives’ swollen feet. I knew we were different. I saw other couples at Starbucks. I wasn’t stupid.
In a last-ditch effort at civility, my husband surprised me with an impromptu dinner for my 34th birthday. Seated in a fancy restaurant, our son began to throw breadsticks and then screech. Patrons stared our way. I panicked, as I knew my husband was getting angry, which would give way to an eruption. I had toys and snacks in the diaper bag.
“Where’s the bag?” I asked him.
“Don’t you have it? You’d better. Your birthday present was in there.”
He was about to boil over, a scene I didn’t want to experience in the swanky French restaurant. An hour later, I had locked myself in the bathroom with my son, who was happily unraveling a roll of toilet paper. My husband screamed through the door what an absolute idiot I was to lose the bag with diamond earrings in it.
“Book us a ticket back to California,” I said through the wood. The next morning, I stood in the lobby with our toddler and four oversize suitcases. I asked if he could help me carry the bags, glancing at my swollen midsection.
He handed me a hundred dollar bill.
“Ask the driver.”
Back in my gilded cage, I waited for flowers and contrite text messages that never came. Lying awake at night, my boy in my arms, my girl kicking hard in my belly, my heart raced. “No man would leave a pregnant woman. It will just blow over.”
After a week of silence, I started to snoop for a clue as to how my life had unraveled like a row of a cheap sequins. One of my duties as the stay-at-home wife of an important man was to order flowers for the wives of colleagues. “It’s a nice touch,” he said. “Shows them I’m a family man.”
Logging on to the florist’s site, I scrolled through the tiny thumbnails of the yellow tulip bouquets I always sent. Standing out like a wound was the image of two dozen red roses. I zoomed in on the note card. Her name was Jill. In a way, I was relieved. Hopped up on my own hormones, my investigation went Columbo. My husband had two cellphone numbers. One was only for international travel, but now I wondered. I dialed it using the code to our land line. There was a message from, you guessed it, Jill. I looked her up on Google. A Detroit agency for models and actors popped up. There she was in Lucite heels and a shiny burgundy bikini. I sent it to him, letting him know I knew.
I don’t know what I expected, but it was not to have the rugs ripped out from underneath me, literally. Back on the West Coast to see our son, he removed all of the fancy Persian carpets that had warmed our feet from the Travertine with broken border grout he’d picked out. Even in California, the house became as cold as a tomb. There were no questions of how my doctors’ visits were, but the papers I dreaded came. He’d filed for divorce and asked me to vacate his residence immediately. His lawyer called me a squatter.
When most women divorce, there are tears but also celebrations from well-intentioned friends, a deluge of candy-colored martinis and — if you’re lucky — one of those expensive, funny cakes where the bride is chain-sawing the head of the groom off of the top tier, or something like that. For expectant mothers, there is the 16-week visit that reveals the absence or presence of a tiny penis, determining whether the nursery paint should be pink or blue. I was both, which meant I could do neither. So I burrowed and became a recluse. Funnily, while at my most fragile mentally, physically and financially, I found love. After years of self-loathing, I began to concentrate on repairing my broken relationship with myself. My id no longer whispered, “You are unlovable,” but rather, “You no longer deserve this.”
That day in court, looking pregnant, poor and plain, I was awarded all I cared about. Them.
When I went into labor, my legs spread wider than they ever did in Bikram. There was no man by my side. When the doctor pulled her out, he smiled. “She’s a star gazer.” She was born facing the heavens. Every mother says this, but she was a picture. Lips like a bud, alabaster arms and legs, sweetly ringed in fat, almond blue eyes and a crown of wet, red curls. I cut her cord myself. That night, with her latched on to my breast, sucking hungrily, I felt the satisfaction of finally having gotten exactly what I wanted.
Alice Parker is the pen name of a writer living in New York.More Alice Parker.
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)