I Can Change

Posted on November 17, 2022 by Bob Chikos
Bob Chikos

My brother’s first serious girlfriend was Rianna.

Unlike the other girls he had brought home, she had a personality. Not only did she acknowledge my existence, she actually encouraged my brother to let me hang out with them and their senior friends. Of course he did. He did anything she told him to do.

It was an instant three-level boost in stature. I was a sophomore, so hanging out with seniors was a two-step boost. I was also a geek, so hanging out with cooler kids who could drive was another boost.

I was used to doing everything with my parents. Now I was under the watch of my brother, and it was my first taste of semi-freedom. We got out of our town and explored exotic places: the adventure of Six Flags Great America, the splendor of Lake Forest, even the far-flung hinterlands of southeast Wisconsin.

Our family hosted Henri, an exchange student from France. To show him as much of North America as we could, our mom planned a trip to Niagara Falls. Despite his protests, my brother was forced to come with us. 
“He’s our guest!” my mom told him, “You need to be a good host. Rianna will be here when you get back.”

We picked up my aunt’s family, near Detroit, and went to Canada in her van. The van had a cassette player and everybody was allowed one hour with their music. My mom and aunt played Credence Clearwater Revival or the Beach Boys. The kids, ranging in age from 18 to 11, played Depeche Mode, Guns N’ Roses, MC Hammer, Roger Whittaker (that was me), and the Muppets.

My brother pined for Rianna throughout the trip, sulking. While at the Swiss Chalet restaurant, he borrowed my mom’s calling card and found a pay phone outside the restaurant, next to the newspaper vending machine. He talked to Rianna while we waited for, and then ate, our food. We eventually found him cradling the receiver as my mom admonished him for running up the phone bill with a long international call.

After dinner, we saw a supermarket called Mr. Grocer, whose logo consisted of the top half of a mustached, faceless bald man. We said that my brother should write a letter to Rianna, glue it to the bottom half of Mr. Grocer, and have its legs run to Illinois.

In August, Rianna went to college. My brother was admitted to the same college, although for the spring semester. A week after move-in, she asked my brother to bring everything she still needed from home. He crammed the car with her clothes, books, stuffed animals, and everything else she forgot the week before. He made the three-hour drive to her school, unloaded everything from the car, and then carried it to her dorm. After everything was in place, she broke up with him.

He wouldn’t come out of his room for a week, except to use the bathroom and eat Cherry Garcia. The next time I looked at photographs from the summer, I saw her face Wite-Outed.

In January, he went to college. His suitemate was Mark, a long-haired ruddy-faced sociology major, who bore a passing resemblance to David Koresh.

Mark was a power pop rock musician. I bought his CDs and saw him perform, thinking he had a chance to become something big. Looking back, his style was just a little bit behind the times. America had transitioned to grunge music – distortions and nihilistic lyrics. Everything was labeled as alternative to the point of: alternative to what?

Most guitarists I knew were at the musical equivalent of second grade, whereas Mark was like a Ph.D. candidate. He could pick up his guitar and, just noodling around, make it sound like a professional musician. He composed his own music. He had a few signature elements:

  1. The ’80s rock template, including a guitar solo.
  2. He yelled, “Hey!” in a lot of his songs.
  3. He’d often throw in an uncouth word.

One of his songs sounded like an ‘80s sitcom theme. Every time I listened to it, I imagined Balki and Cousin Larry running around Chicago.

Mark wrote many of his songs based on events in his life. He was very close to one girlfriend and the songs during that period were very upbeat. But she had issues. Her brother had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in his bedroom. To save the family from additional anguish, Mark had cleaned up the mess. He told me how he had picked up tiny shards of skull and wiped away bits of brain. Despite his being a stable presence in her life, she left him.

Mark wrote a song imploring her to come back. But he used a variation of Rianna’s name as the title. His lyrics went:

I still love you

I still need you

Christ, what else can I say?

Brianna I can change!

Brianna I can change!

Every time my brother heard that song, he’d cringe. 

Mark insisted it was pure coincidence.

When it became obvious that his girlfriend wasn’t coming back, Mark wrote a new song with less hopeful lyrics:

It’s over. There’s nothing left to say.

And I can’t believe I took that crap, anyway.

As far as I know, Mark never made it as a musician.

More than 15 years later, I went back to school to get my teaching certificate. On the first day of student teaching, we had a large gathering in the school cafeteria. The principal introduced me as the student teacher and asked me to say a few words. After we were dismissed, a teacher walked in my direction. She looked familiar. Approaching me, she smirked, then moved on. Before she did, I read her name tag: Rianna.

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