I’m ten years old, nestled in a striped seat on the Greyhound with my mom and older brother, heading north to the safety of Maine, Christmas, and Nana and Grampy. Tucked under my leg are Mad magazine, Archie comics, and 16—reading material I cajoled out of Mom in a cramped drugstore at the Port Authority. (We ate at the lunch counter there, too, even though it was 8 o’clock at night… some kind of grilled sandwich cut in sharp triangles, and shakes from the gleaming silver vessel of the mixing machine, taupe foam hissing as the counterman streamed it into my glass. Blowing bubbles through the straw, until Mom told us to cut that out. Nervous giggles of a trip about to begin.)
I’ve taken in all I can about Betty’s eternal struggle to snag Archie away from that snot Veronica. (She’s blond, for crying out loud! What, is Archie blind? This confuses my brown-haired self.) Wondered how anyone could ever stand Reggie with that black helmet of a head and snide demeanor. Already folded Al Jaffee’s two-way trick picture on the last page of Mad, having read a satire of The Sting that was way over my head. And I now know all about the Hudson Brothers and their tragic childhoods, as well as Donny’s valiant search for the right girl despite the pressures of touring. (She must like the color purple and consider becoming a Mormon, if she’s not one already. Oh well, I do love purple.)
I switch off the little circle of light above me and stare out at nighttime New England: big-windowed store façades, factories, neon neon neon, scatterings of houses, deep blackness. My mother’s head nods against my arm as the bus bumps and sways, and across the way my brother is occupying two seats, lying curled up under his coat. Me, I’m a laser of wakefulness. We’re three rows away from the restroom—always in the back so Mom can smoke.
Behind us is a group of young people, also interested in smoking. Their legs are bent toward one another in jeans and they’re sharing a transistor radio, bathed in the smoke-diffused glow of the reading lights. They are teenagers, I think. Not quite hippies; I’m scared of hippies, for some reason. Maybe these are college students. I can’t tell, but I envy their camaraderie in the middle of the night, when both of my companions have long since deserted me.
And then: a song comes on their radio, floats down the aisle, inescapable, as if I am hearing it before anybody else—churchy piano, minor chords piled one on the other, regretful lyrics, plaintive yet assertive, hope against hope when love is lost. Entirely mine, this song. Not even my brother, my authority on which songs are cool, is hearing this. I’m burning to know what song this is, who’s singing it, but I set that aside to bask in the final chorus with its near-falsetto, shimmering chords: “… ‘cause I’d never want to make you change for me-e-e-e-e…” and then the gospel modulation: “Think of me, you-oooh-oooooh, you know that I’d be with you if I could….”
Todd Rundgren sings of the newfound distance between lovers, the end of something and the beginning of something else. He is a man who thought enough of his ex-girlfriend to let her know how important her freedom was to him, and who crafted a masterful pop song to disperse those sentiments. A song about separation, reason, and acceptance, glistening with tantalizing hooks. I’m still playing with Barbies. What do I know about these things?
It’s not just what I knew then, but what I would know; I was transported to the future place where such yearning emotions would dwell in me. A touchstone from a tinny radio in dark December on a Greyhound bus. Every time love-lost feelings arise, I press that stone into my palm, its cool, smooth assurance getting me through, and its pain-shifting chords saying everything better than words.