But no, that's not entirely true. Thinking back on it now, all these years later, she wouldn't actually give him his jeremiad when the records played. That was quiet time, time to think. Glass of white zinfandel, a pack of smokes. Time to think, think it through. Why am I mad this time? Same reason as last week? No, no, this time it's different. Puff, sip. Puff, sip. Need another album. Gotta think this through.
It was when the albums were off, that was when it was. Thinking time over. Time to let it rip. That was when she'd yell and scream, launching into my father and letting it all go. And I'd sit at the top of the steps listening, trying my hardest to really understand, straining to hear when sobs clenched her throat, running down the hall when I thought she'd turned my way. It was a performance—maybe she knew that. And I watched. Every time.
What was she thinking of though? Him in 1970? A 1967 version of "Cherry Cherry"? The bouffant and tight pants? The hair—those sideburns!—or the broad nose, dark, deep-set eyes? The mouth that so perfectly forms his "Oh, I love my rosy child"? The eyebrows like two giant slashes of thick black fur across his strong forehead, creased with emotion and care? Was that it? Was that why she loved Neil Diamond so much?
It was a decade and a half after all that though. By this time Neil was older, more direct, less suave about selling himself and more in her face. There was his Greatest Hits Live film that year, his balding head, those sideburns now streaked with a gallant and promising grey prominent on the poster, and she just had to go, had to see Neil. She was happy for a good four or five days. Oh just gotta go see that one! Gotta see Neil.
This was the cycle from when I was born until I turned fourteen, occurring almost on schedule every two weeks: her getting mad and staying up all night yelling, a day or so of Neil Diamond rattling the walls before. She'd cry at "You Don't Bring Me Flowers (Anymore)"—that always made Dad upset. She'd bring it up when fighting too—Well you don't bring me flowers! You don't!—before hurling a glass of wine at the wall. That would actually provoke Dad to act. When she started throwing things, that's when he'd make a move, easing her back into her chair, getting her another glass of wine. Just let her run its course, he'd say. It's winding down. Don't worry, honey. It's almost done.
We'd make fun of it later, after the divorce was final and I had gone away to school. Oh the Neil Diamond thing, yeah, I remember. God, she'd play it for hours. Over and over. Rattle the walls. Hated it, always did. Oh yeah, the Neil Diamond thing. Yeesh. Hoo.
Good thing that's over with.
The Neil Diamond thing, hoo.
Could never listen to him again.
Never, ever again.
But after I while I couldn't help it, I wanted to listen to Neil. I chose "Sweet Caroline" to sing while drunk, sometimes in karaoke, sometimes on the streets. It could be cool in an ironic sense. And didn't you hear? It's about Caroline Kennedy. So that's kind of creepy, but cool.
Because she was, like, 7.
Yeah, he saw a photo of her riding a horse.
But the song says, "Touching Me, Touching You."
About a 7 year old?
So it's kind of creepy.
And I'd continue to sing. Neil Diamond songs would get stuck in my head. I couldn't tell my father about it, but there would be times when it was the only thing I wanted to hear. And it was always the only thing I'd sing when drunk. We didn't have much in common, my mother and I, but we did have that: Neil Diamond and wine.
She left the family the summer I was fourteen, took the money from the divorce settlement and moved herself to a cabin the woods. Just what I want, some real peace and quiet. Perfect little place. Life's quiet, real calm. For a while she sent cards with notes inside, nothing specific, about the snowfall or the cold. She never asked what I was doing, and I stopped telling her my news. Four years went by with fewer and fewer letters between us. Phone calls never happened. Birthdays and holidays went unnoticed. Once I sent her a card on January 24th, Neil's birthday. I never heard back. I went to college and finished my first year without any communication between us. She didn't even know I was in New York.
It was the end of the school year and the dorm was emptying out. The dining hall was quiet. I was alone. A woman who worked in administration was calling the phone number of every room in the dorm, making sure that all the students had left.
"Why did you answer?"
"Because you called me on the phone."
"No, you're not supposed to be here anymore."
"I have permission. I have to work."
"Who do you work for?"
"The Center for Artistic and Musical Performances. Work study job."
"So why you here?"
"There's some performances at commencement tomorrow. I have to hand out checks. I was told I was allowed to stay. I got a note from work. Do you want it? I can give it to you."
"You leavin' tomorrow?"
"Well, early enough. After commencement."
"All right, you can stay."
"Thanks. Appreciate it."
"You too, baby. Good night."
I remember the next morning better than I remember anything else. I had to get up early but it didn't matter since I had hardly slept. The quiet of the dorm was like a church service, and I spent the night thinking of what it was going to be like, how it was going to feel to meet him, my Jewish Elvis, Forever in Blue Jeans himself. Neil Diamond was going to perform at the commencement. And I was going to be there, to hand out checks to the minor performers, the bagpipers who would lead in the president of the school.
We knew he was coming because we had had him lined up for months, and it was very important because it was some sort of anniversary, either of the university or in his career, or something else important that was going on. And he had briefly attended the school before dropping out to pursue music full-time, so his reception of an honorary degree really made sense, since, you know, he almost got a degree here anyway. Before dropping out.
It was before six when I walked across the park to the building where I would wait for the checks. My job wasn't important—hand out some slips of paper—but it mattered enough to keep me on campus another day. I walked quickly, humming. Everything felt new. I was a year older, a year into college education, and here it was, a chance to meet Neil. A breakfast spread was out, tiny muffins and fresh pressed juice. I ate and waited for the men in kilts. No one mentioned anything about Neil. I stood near the table where the muffins were, picking at them and nibbling anxiously, wondering where he could be. Did he bring a tour bus? How does he get around? My god, does he want some muffins? I should stop eating so much. I moved away from the table and stood in the corner, nervous, waiting for Sweet Caroline.
I needed to see him before the performance, but I wasn't sure if I could. I didn't want to be hiding under a tree somewhere while the graduates got the best view. I wanted to be close to him, even just for a minute, to see if we could connect. I was lucky that day, luckier than I've had the rare opportunity to ever be. Neil would have to do a sound check, and there were dancers involved. And the dancers needed paychecks, and that was up to me.
A few hours passed that felt like days. Commencement would begin at ten. Sound checks were supposed to begin at eight. I walked into the park where they had set up the stage. Four dancers in purple and black were sparkling, giving each other back rubs, humming to warm up. They had white gloves on like cartoon characters and excellent posture. God, their teeth were brilliant. I had just dyed my hair pink. I felt shallow and small in comparison.
"Neil's gonna be here soon, give out the checks out and let them warm up."
"Yes ma'am," I wanted to scream. I hopped to it, placing envelopes in white-gloved hands. I got off the stage and stood near a tree, close to the stage, imperceptible among leaves and branches. It was a beautiful day in May. I wasn't even supposed to be on campus anymore. There was something exhilarating in that. I waited, slipping quietly in and out of love.
When he arrived I briefly lost my breath. He was grizzled, somewhat stooped with age. He was in his sixties by that time, and the years showed. No one was around him for a moment or two, his agent or manager or someone with some kind of role had wandered off to see about performance fees and riders, and Neil ascended the steps of the stage with slightly labored breath, a huge early morning cigar in his hand. He barked at the dancers, "You guys know how to keep up?" Their eyes never left him. It was a golden opportunity after all. I could hear the conversations that I knew they'd later have.
"Once I danced with Neil Diamond."
"With him? Like a waltz?"
"No, behind him. At a commencement. Oh my god, it was fantastic. I was terrible, but Neil. Neil was great."
I stood under the tree unable to move. There he was, just a few feet away. His manager had returned and was talking into his ear. Neil was smiling, puffing out smoke. He joked with the female dancers but ignored the males. The sun was gorgeous, and so was the park. The people on the stage were gorgeous. When Neil smiled and threw his head back to laugh, he was gorgeous, and the dancers staring at him were gorgeous too. I wanted to reach out to him but felt compelled to remain by the tree. I sent out thoughts to this old gorgeous man. Even if I never spoke to him, at least I could have that. My mother loved you more than me, Neil. She left me behind but she'd never do that to you. Put down that stogie and listen to what I am trying to say. My mother loved you, Neil. She loved you. She literally hasn't spoken to me in years. But you? I hope you know what you possess.
He didn't understand. He warmed up a voice thick with mucous and smoke, spitting off the stage and stretching his arms. He flung away the cigar. He put on the purple robe. He asked for the mic and I watched a stage tech hand it to him with awe.
"Stay with me, dancers. Don't lag behind."
Eight eyes were upon him, jazz hands at the ready.
He launched into something I had never seen live: the reincarnation of my childhood nights, here performing a few feet away. And he performed with everything he had, during the sound check, the commencement, when he got his honorary degree. The years vanished when he sang. His voice was rougher, more callous and old, but he moved, kept moving, kept bringing it on. The sound check was a concert. The dancers began to sweat. I stood there clasped to one tree's bark. The music was in turns beautiful and awful, like all things are. The sun became blinding as it rose in the sky, bouncing off of sequins and his hair, now almost completely gray. It was a "Song Sung Blue." It was "I Am . . . I Said." It was "Cracklin' Rosie" when he briefly forgot the words and we all laughed and he shook it off like someone who knows that he's doing well. It was him, with the hair, the voice, the eyes that pierced me even though he didn't know who I was. I was just nineteen with bright pink hair, but he was who he was, there, in front of me for the first time in my life: Neil Diamond. My mother's one and only first love.
Thinking back on it now the commencement happened, but I don't remember it at all. Someone important spoke and close to 5,000 people received their degrees, but the only thing I remember is Neil. His performances were sparse. He sang the alma mater and a song he had written especially for the school with rhymes so ridiculously simple I thought a third grade class had written it for him. He left as soon as he received his degree; I could see him, vaguely, enter a limo on a side street, his purple robe abandoned somewhere along the road. But what did that change? It was the sound check that mattered, really. That was when he was in charge. A big empty stage in a big empty park, a few pigeons swooping down and four dancers glistening with sweat. Neil, exchanging cigar for microphone, acting as though this, right now, this performance on this stage, was the only reason on earth for us to live. Me and Neil, together for the first time. I held onto the tree until someone forced me to move. I knew that after the sound check he had gone to a changing room for some peace and quiet before the ceremony would begin, but I didn't want to know where he was. Anything I had to share with him I had already shared, exchanged blankly that one morning in the park. For once, I understood. I had had enough. It was so obvious why she loved him. I did too. I do now. I probably always will.
I remember the dream I had that night, a dream I still sometimes have, especially after days in which my mother occupies my thoughts. It's been years again, years since I've seen Neil, years since I've heard from my mom. When this gets me down I dream that I'm with Neil somewhere, grabbing a drink. It's an old bar, almost empty, during another sunny afternoon, and we're sitting across from each other over a wooden table, graffiti and names and I was here, January 1982 etched into it with table knives and almost worn away, the slats going perpendicular to the way we're staring at each other. He's older up close, his elbows resting lightly on the table edge and a beer gripped in two giant hands, and he looks at me intently, those giant eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he tries to begin to speak. He's quiet for a moment, acting dramatic, and then he begins to talk.
His words flow over me like sailboats going up and down my arms. I'm sitting the same way, leaning over my elbows, the beer in an old German stein gripped between my two hands. He enunciates everything, throwing the language around like a song. His brows furrow and rest. He sometimes gestures with one or both hands. He looks at me nearly all the time, right in my eyes, unless he turns away in dramatic guise; looks away when he's ashamed, looks back at me when he's feeling strong. I can't hear or remember anything. I simply stare back. I've fallen in love with Neil Diamond so completely by this point, in love with his lilting silent actions, the way the beer at times enters his mouth. How quiet it can be when I feel so focused, in this dream world, in this conversation, that I can't even hear the constant emptiness that life without my mother, no matter how horrible she might have been, has placed inside of me, inside of my heart. Instead, everything is filled with Neil. From the moment the dream begins to the moment I wake up, the emptiness is finally filled with something, and it is filled with Neil.
You've gotten us both now, Neil, or at least the leftovers of what we might've been. I don't respond to him in the dream, but if I could, I would whisper the only thing I can think of to say to him, the Neil Diamond which is the only thing my mother and I now share: I hope you prefer me without pink hair. It's just a song sung blue, Neil. Everybody knows one, every garden grows one. A song sung blue, Neil. And that's my song for you.
Emily Dufton is a PhD student in American Studies at George Washington University.
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