A Lumineers tribute to my friend Joe Piro, as he sits on a plane from Heathrow to JFK after his semester abroad. He is not happy to be leaving London and needs a reminder of how much we need him here in the States. All lyrics quoted are by the Lumineers. Click here to buy their new album.
It’s seventh grade and we’re in Mr. Butterfield’s class. I sit in the front and get an A on every assignment. He sits in the back and talks to the popular kids. By the middle of the school year our front and back row cliques overlap and we become friends. He copies my assignments and most of the time I don’t mind. A friend asks us if we want to date. We both refuse. We know even this early on that we aren't meant to be romantic soulmates, but we have no idea that we will one day declare ourselves musical soulmates.
"I don't gamble but if I did I would bet on us."
It's the beginning of 2009. Auditions for the Roman Banquet play are coming up. I’m a second-time cast member. He thought he was too cool for it last year until he saw how good the play actually was, so I’m resentful of his late arrival. We both audition for the part of Theseus—the lead role, of course. He gets it and he deserves it and I play his mother. When we have our first scene together on the night of the show, I forget a scroll backstage and run off to grab it. For a very long few seconds, I leave him alone on stage for the first time in his life. He dances to break the tension. Later that year, it’s the eighth grade moving up ceremony and I take videos of him dancing to "Thriller" and post them on Facebook (this cool new website we both just joined). We talk about the vest he wore to the dance, and for some reason we create a fan page called Joe’s Vest! that we run together. I am not sure why we created it, but it still exists today.
"And all the things we said, we were self-assured. 'Cause it's a long road to wisdom but it's a short one to being ignored."
It's our senior year of high school and we don't see each other often because I have late arrival and he has early dismissal. When we do see each other in the halls he says to me in passing, do you even go here!? and I roll my eyes. One night in the spring we sit in his car outside my job until two in the morning. He shows up at ten, I scoop him some orange blossom ice cream, then head out in my pink shirt and matching sneakers with the goal of figuring out once and for all where he will go to college. We're weighing pros and cons, calling both of my sisters for advice, listening to "Follow Your Arrow," and laughing a lot. I can't remember if we made any concrete decisions that night or not. I get home past curfew but my parents don't worry.
'"Cause if we don't leave this town we might never make it out. I was not born to drown. Baby, come on."
It’s senior prom and we're all set to become the best platonic prom king and queen you've ever seen. We’re shoo-ins, just schmoozing from table to table during the "cocktail" hour. At the end of the night, I get queen. He’s dethroned by a kid who choked on a grape at the pre-prom party and got the sympathy vote. The guy was rushed to the hospital, showed up to prom late, then got lots of attention and ultimately the crown. I dance with the boy I barely know for about thirty seconds until we drift apart and I head over to my intended king. This past year, I receive a text from him that says, “I told my friends the other day that my biggest regret from senior year was not taking you to prom.” Eat your heart out, class of 2013.
“I don’t think you’re right for him. Think of what it might’ve been if you took a bus to China Town. I’d be standing on Canal and Bowery. She’d be standing next to me.”
It’s winter break of our freshman year of college and we reunite in the middle of the Riverhead Target after a semester without seeing each other. This time we sit in my car past midnight and I listen to his stories about his new life at Boston University. Inside, I am on the verge of tears. I desperately want to be at a college that fills my heart the way his does. I am happy for him but paralyzed by my own self-doubt and regrets.
"But you held your course to some distant war in the corners of your mind."
I officially decide I’m transferring universities. I want to be in a big city with big dreams and big adventures. I’m changing my major (more than once) and starting all over again. He sends me materials: information about Boston College (a fifteen minute drive from his dorm, he mentions), descriptions of major and minors I’d be interested in, internship and job postings, BuzzFeed articles about student loan debt, videos of commencement speeches about following your dreams. This gives me the motivation to take the risk I desperately need to take, and his support hasn't lessened since.
"New York, it lied to me, I needed the truth. Oh, I need somebody, I need someone I could trust."
It’s this past summer and we’re fourth row at a Taylor Swift concert in a giant New Jersey football stadium. We scream and cry and sing from the minute we leave home to the minute we return. We have matching t-shirts and get photographed by People Magazine in the parking lot. In the middle of the night's wildcard song, we clap to the beat at the exact same time. I immediately turn to him and yell, THIS IS WHY WE’RE FRIENDS!
"I don't own a single gun, but if I did you'd be the one."
It's the beginning of December and I can feel my world crashing down around me. My confidence has been broken into a zillion tiny pieces and I can't for the life of me figure out how to put them all back together. I am four thousand miles away from home. I’ve forgotten who I am and am having trouble remembering why any element of my existence is valuable. I'm staying up until six a.m. every night unable to control my anxiety and I'm questioning all of my relationships. I wake up on a Sunday afternoon to an email with the subject Procrastinating. I'm expecting something trivial and unrelated. The body of the message reads: So I was trying to write an essay and I got distracted. So here's a first draft. Keep your chin up. Love, Joe.
Attached to the email are the exact words I need to hear. The glue I need to piece myself back together and feel whole again. I throw on some eyeliner, pull myself together, and feel able to face—and worthy of enjoying—the world again for the first time in weeks.
"Keep your head up, my love."
It's the beginning of January and I'm on my way to Providence, Rhode Island. As my oldest sister drives through Connecticut and I sit in the passenger seat singing along to the Hamilton soundtrack, I receive a text from a number I don't recognize. It has a +44 country code and I’m a bit confused. I open it up and read a simple message: London pub is playing Red!! I know exactly who it is. No context, no signature, no introduction. Supplemental information isn't necessary.
"You'll be home in spring. I can wait 'til then. I heard you're on the big train."
It's most mornings of this semester. We text during my long commute to school. I complain about classes and the Staten Island Ferry. He tells me, your life is a lot right now. As the weeks pass, his feelings about leaving London become overwhelming. He is afraid of losing the happiness he feels right now. I tell him, London is a city worth crying over.
"So I drive a taxi, and the traffic distracts me from the strangers in my backseat; they remind me of you."
It's a couple weeks ago. He sees the Lumineers at a venue in England and gets me an autograph from the lead singer. In the same week, I pull up two tickets for us to see the Lumineers in Brooklyn this summer and buy them immediately. I tweet, I HAVE BEEN WAITING THREE YEARS FOR THIS DAY. DREAMS COME TRUE, BITCHES! and it isn't an exaggeration. He takes forever to pay me back but I don't worry because I know where to find him. Still, I bug him with a text that reads:
"How do you pay the rent? Is it your parents? Or is hard work, dear?"
It's this morning and he's texting me from the airport, still not ready to leave his new home in London. He panics because he realizes he hasn't eaten. I tell him they'll give him food on the plane but that doesn't seem to calm him down. He says he lands at seven p.m. New York time. We reference a Taylor Swift song that mentions New York time. We are as in sync as we have been since Mr. Butterfield's class. (We still aren't dating and never have.) Much of our friendship can be played back with a soundtrack. In ninth grade, we'd argue about the success of Lady Gaga. Freshman year of college, he sent me Ben Rector songs when I was depressed. The Adele song playing in the airport as we talked this morning felt like a personal attack. We treated Kacey Musgraves' first album like a religious text after its release in the spring of 2013. The Lumineers' first album guided us as we transitioned from high school to college. Their second album was released earlier this month and it is quickly becoming a staple, a monument in our friendship, another way to measure all the years we've known each other. We're older now but only slightly more mature, and we're relying on good lyrics more than ever before.
Right now, as Joe sits in a tiny airplane seat by himself, sick over the prospect of returning to reality, he is unaware of the importance of his existence in my reality. He is unaware of how capable he is of bringing happiness to himself and his friends wherever he travels. He will forever associate London with the blissful four months he just experienced, but all of his friends and I are selfishly elated at the thought of having him back here with us.
"Would you write, would you call back, baby, if I wrote you a song?
I been gone but you're still my lady and I need you at home."