Working at a record store taught me a tragic truth; no matter how much you love your favorite albums, they’ll never be as popular as they deserve to be. Each month at Merry-Go-Round Magazine, I dust off some long-overlooked records, revisit my pretentious past, and explore how this music forever etched itself into my history. Eventually, all your memories get marked down and thrown into The Bargain Bin.
“Have you heard the new Secret Machines album? There’s a song that reminds me of you,” I said.
“No, I haven’t! Make me a new mix CD,” Honeybee said enthusiastically.
I buried “Lightning Blue Eyes” a few tracks into a mix of other songs that made me think of her and handed it off a few days later. That song rumbled in my chest, and the sheer power of that swirl of bombastic rock music and stunning lyricism sank my heart.
The band didn’t know they had written that song about her. That song wasn’t written for her, but I hope she thought it was.
After graduating from high school in 2005, my sister decided to take a year off before starting college. She found herself a modest apartment and spent her days working in the office of our dad’s company. I had graduated the year before and took classes at the local community college to stay on my mom’s insurance. I was working at a record store making $5.50 an hour for 10 hours a week and had recently discovered how much smoking weed helped me slow down the rushing thoughts that came with severe anxiety. Obviously, life was going great for us both.
She briefly had a roommate, a greasy guy with spiky hair who spent his days grinding away at RESIDENT EVIL 4, but he moved back home to Texas after an unfortunate series of events. She found it difficult to go back to living alone after that. I was sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette between classes on campus one afternoon when I got a call from her.
“Mom said that if I was going to have another freeloader living with me, it might as well be my brother,” she said.
“But you don’t like me,” I told her. “I can’t walk into a room without you rolling your eyes and scowling. So there’s absolutely no way you won’t regret asking me.”
“I hate living alone more than I hate you,” she said matter-of-factly.
I moved in a week later.
One afternoon, I awoke to find a bright piece of neon pink paper slid under my door. It was a drawing of me as a smiling pumpkin, and next to it, in flowing green letters, it said, “Good morning, Jackie Lantern!” I opened the door and peered into the living room.
My sister was chatting with her friend Honeybee on the couch, but I quickly noticed Bee’s lightning-blue eyes slowly drifting in my direction, her left eyebrow raised as it often did. She shot me a knowing smirk. My sister stopped mid-sentence, and I could feel the temperature in the room heat up as she rolled her eyes. She whipped her head around to glare, shooting daggers at me. Honeybee snorted, slapping her knee as she held herself tight to avoid giggling too hard.
This was the first moment my sister regretted asking me to move in.
I had met Honeybee a few weeks before at a party where she clung to my side the entire night as if we’d been familiar for a while. Her hair was in a little curly bun on the top of her head, and she wore a salmon-colored babydoll-style tee and flared jeans. It felt odd when she took a seat in my lap to show me photos from some recent trip she’d gone on, as there were plenty of open seats around us, one of which was occupied by her boyfriend. Maybe she did it to make him jealous, but I had always been blissfully unaware if anyone was flirting with me—I assumed there was no way someone as adorably attractive as she could have been interested in a loser like me. I should mention that I struggled with deep depression, low self-esteem, and severe anxiety, though I hid it well behind false confidence and sarcasm. Bee saw through that thick wall of pretentiousness, recognizing the goodness in me that I couldn’t see then. That was her superpower.
I stopped panicking about being in a room surrounded by people I didn’t know because it felt like a spotlight had shone down on just the two of us as the rest of the party faded into nothingness. I listened to her tell me stories all night long, including how she donned a bee costume for her job at a local buffet chain every week. She ceased to exist when she wore the fuzzy mascot head, and a human-sized bee stood in her place. She adored making children smile, and she had built quite the reputation with the regulators who could always tell when it wasn’t because nobody buzzed around as she did. When she gave her two-week notice, the grandmas walked up to her crying and pleading that she stay because she was the busiest bee they had ever seen.
I fell in love with Honeybee immediately. Everyone did. You couldn’t meet her and not fall in love with her smile, her peculiar outlook on the world, and the warmth she radiated. Bee was the type of person who made you feel remarkable just for being in her orbit. She was curious, always wondering how the world around her worked. She would blurt out the funniest things before her brain processed them, making her laugh as if someone else had said it. She took in lost animals, dying plants, and folks who just needed a friend. She nurtured them all with her love until they grew and thrived. She couldn’t help but throw herself into everything and everyone completely.
Bee was also the first person I had ever met who openly identified as bisexual, wasn’t afraid to tell anyone, and felt no need to explain her identity beyond that. She was a queer pioneer for the closeted me who wouldn’t come out as pansexual for many years. She radiated confidence and was always sure of herself. I looked up to her for that.
About a week after the party, I was having another sleepless night of scouring music blogs for new bands when an instant message popped up from Bee.
“My boyfriend and I broke up. Are you free to talk?”
“Of course,” I told her. “I’m free to listen to you anytime, day or night.”
“Well, meet me at the Waffle House on Telegraph Rd. in half an hour?”
When I sat down in the booth across from her, she told me what happened, her eyes puffy from crying even though she was the one who ended it. They had grown apart. He was a couple of years older, so their lives didn’t intersect as much as they had when they first started dating. I listened to her intently as we drank burnt coffee and ate hash browns piled with cheese and onions.
The air was thick with smoke, so after the waitress cleared our plates, I lit a cigarette to add to the ambiance of the already disgusting diner. I found myself lost in the lightning-blue color of her eyes. I would be lost in them for years.
On a muggy summer night in 2006, we drove around in my mom’s old minivan listening to Sunny Day Real Estate with the windows rolled down as we passed my pipe full of sticky weed back and forth. I drove us through all the dark back roads in the county to avoid cops, steering the van with my knees when it was my turn to inhale. She laughed when I told her about the time that I navigated those same roads home, completely wasted after throwing up on my favorite flannel shirt and how when “Rain Song” came up on shuffle on my iPod, I kept hitting repeat until I crookedly pulled into the parking lot of the apartment half an hour later with tears streaming down my cheeks. In our little cloud, we were cut off from the world and safe from ridicule for poor judgment. But, of course, nothing hurt when Bee was my co-pilot.
We ended up back in the apartment on the couch, watching THE MUPPET MOVIE and giggling until the world slowed down to a halt. We were shoulder to shoulder, her head on mine, in a moment where everything was in its proper place, and nothing could have gone wrong. I shut my eyes and passed out momentarily, falling deeper into myself as I fell into the cushions.
When I opened them, she was staring back at me. Our faces were so close that our noses almost touched, and we were lying down. My heart pounded like a kick drum. I was convinced she could feel the love vibrating through me.
“Finally,” I thought, “This is it. This is your chance.” I started to lean toward her.
But then doubt set in, and I began to panic. In half a second, my negative thoughts cycled through every possibility, everything that could go wrong in an endless loop; fear kept me frozen in time.
“What was the worst that could happen? She might say no, which would feel like the world’s end. I don’t think I can handle that. I can’t stomach the rejection. Will that hurt worse than the longing to be with her? There’s no way she loves me back. I have nothing to offer. I am sure I am nothing to her.”
One lone bead of sweat rolled sideways off my forehead slowly, dropped off my head, and snapped me back to reality. Bee smiled, rolled herself off the couch, and walked down the hall to the bathroom.
I have never stopped thinking about that moment.
“I don’t want to live past my 28th birthday,” Bee told me. “All the greatest rock ‘n’ rollers checked out around 27, so I don’t want to go further past that. I want to die a legend.”
“That hurts my heart to think about,” I said. “You already are a legend to me. I can’t imagine a world without you shining in it.”
“Aw, Jackie. You’ll get used to it.”
While nothing romantic happened between Bee and me, we stayed close friends for a couple of years. We had a couple of mutual friends obsessed with movies, and she sometimes tagged along for midnight showings of every major blockbuster that came out.
In the summer of 2007, I convinced them all to see HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX with me, even though I was the only one in the group that had seen the others. The film’s climax switched to a massive 3D battle between spell-casting wizards, which seemed like it would be quite a sight for us while comfortably stoned. Bee immediately threw on her 3D glasses as we settled in. It seemed like a quirky move and didn’t feel out of character, so I said nothing of it, and anyway, they looked pretty fashionable on her.
When the “put on your 3D glasses” sign started to blink, and the film shifted perspective, Honeybee yelped as she jumped out of her seat. Suddenly, the wizards had all pointed their wands directly in her face. Tears streamed down our cheeks while we tried to stifle our laughter; she hadn’t realized that until then, the wizarding world was only in two dimensions.
“Why didn’t you guys say anything?” she shouted.
A theater full of costumed nerds all shushed her at once.
One night in February of 2021, when my wife and I were living in Chicago, I had a vivid dream about Honeybee for the first time in a decade.
We were back in high school, though an abandoned shopping mall played the part of our school in my imagined dreamland. Bee was decked out in glitter and sequence, practicing to become the new Taylor Swift, as if “Taylor Swift” was some sort of cosmic persona passed on from one powerful woman to the next. She would take on the mantle like Carol Danvers did as Captain Marvel and save the universe through song.
I generally think it can be weird to contact old friends out of the blue when they end up in a dream, but Bee is the one person I know that might be offended if she ever found out I didn’t reach out. So I sent her a message on Facebook the following afternoon, recounting her rise to stardom, and said I hoped she enjoyed being a universal pop sensation.
Honeybee and I hadn’t spoken much since the old days. I always worried I would bother her as she lived her life jetting around the country in search of freedom, peace, and happiness. Half an hour after sending the message, Bee replied, saying she couldn’t wait to tell her stepdaughter because she was a huge Swiftie. We chatted back and forth, updating each other on our lives throughout the pandemic. She told me she had settled in California after meeting a man who loved her dearly. She looked blissful, dabbing with her stepkids in their wedding photos. I told her how I had found true love and moved to Chicago and how we had hoped to move out her way in a few years. I said we would all have to meet up sometime once it was safe. The last message she would ever send me was “YES!!”
When life was at its most challenging, knowing she existed somewhere in the world made it feel slightly better. I’m glad she made it past 28, but she was supposed to burn bright for much longer.
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