Proof Returns

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Posted by Greg on October 14, 2003 at 8:33 pm
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Here’s the latest in our series of Crowe inspired essays called “We Have the Records, We Have the Proof”. The latest entry (by Dan Pulliam) is entitled The Penny Lane Identity Crisis. Another powerful, personal story. Check it out!

The Penny Lane Identity Crisis

(or: how I learned to become an invisible man in just six years)

by Dan Pulliam

Penny Lane is, in some ways, that same person for each of us that she was for William Miller. It took a while for this to dawn on me, but upon subsequent viewing of ‘Almost Famous’ (and, more especially, of ‘Untitled’), a few things became undeniably clear. One: Penny’s perfection is in her flaws. Two: Penny isn’t perfect…she just happens to be perfect for the one who loves her. Three: Under it all, she carries her battered heart wrapped up in a blanket while projecting an air of invincibility. And four: Through everything, there is one person who knows her best…possibly better than she knows herself.

That’s where we come in. And come on, guys, you know who you are. We’re the tortured souls. The ones who find something of worth in a Crowe film because we can actually feel what other people just watch casually with less-than-discerning eyes. We’re the best guys that everyone knows. We’re the last in a dying breed of chivalrous romantics (the ones as yet unphased by the recent influx of societal cynicism). We’re the people who sit patiently and wait for something intangible. We’re never happy until we find it, and yet we’re never quite sure what it is. If this is making any kind of sense to you, then we’re probably on the same page, and in the vein of the tortured soul syndrome, we’ve all got our Penny Lane, don’t we?

I met my Penny a long time ago. It seems like a lifetime now that I look back on it. She was sitting on a couch and looked up at me as I walked in a room. A family friend of my new step-father’s mother, the likelihood of our meeting at all was slim to none. But we did, and across that room the first day I met her, I saw for the first time that which I would spend an unhealthy amount of hours pondering and searching after in the months and years to come. She gave me that look. That smile that seemed to carry with it all the wisdom, kindness, love and heart in the world. As it turned out, I wasn’t imagining it. It was the look Penny gave William when he asks “what’s your real name?” on the tour bus. A wealth of unknowns lay beneath that cool exterior, and somehow it seemed my personal mission in life to uncover them all.

For the next couple of years, I drifted from one dead-ended, unhealthy relationship to the next, getting more and more convinced that nothing I was pursuing was making my life any better. One night around midnight, I was lying in bed thinking about that, and suddenly, I shot awake. I remember sitting straight up in bed and remembering that look I’d seen two years prior and how it had made me feel. At the time, it seemed just a casual if knowing glance from across a room. But now, after a time, I could look back and see it for what it really was: someone who was staring at me with the kind of eyes that knew me better than I knew myself. I called my step-brother and got a list of potential numbers for her (he had a vague idea, but nothing substantial). I called them all. After a few angry recipients, I chanced upon the right number.

Her voice was beautiful. I knew the moment she answered that I’d reached the right person. I’d only said a few words to her those few years ago, but somehow there was a familiarity with her that seemed more than coincidence. More real and undeniable than simply a casual acquaintance. She had a sharp wit that cut right to the heart of my words and exposed my faults immediately, but I found this more refreshing than intimidating. Finally, I’d met someone with the ability to keep me honest with her and with myself. Talking to her long into the night, I started to feel a smile on my face. One that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I tried to keep my emotions in check.

Somewhere around 2:00am, I pulled out Journey’s ‘Frontiers’ album, and sang along with ‘Faithfully.’ Now, I love to sing to be sure, but there’s a very specific level of comfort you’ve got to have talking to someone to serenade them with that song on a first phone call. This was that conversation, and I could tell I’d touched a nerve. Every turn my intellect made, she was there to meet me. She had all of the sense of herself that I’d searched for in myself but never found. I was hypnotized by her whispery voice that was never too flirty, but never too unintentional, either. It was a balance that I would never fully be able to deal with in a rational way. I finally worked up the courage to ask if she wanted to get together sometime. We made plans to hang out the following weekend.

As it turned out, the following weekend was long in coming. Our relationship was sporadic at best, and something in me was perplexed as to why or how we stayed in contact for as long as we did. It was almost as if it were meant to be. All it would have taken was a slight push, a gust of wind, or a falter in step and we never would have remained friends, but we somehow did. There was something brewing beneath her eyes when I looked at her that seemed to say so much more than anything she ever did openly. And it was a window that only I seemed to be able to see into. It was a slow process, but Penny Lane was beginning to take shape in this girl, and I didn’t even know it yet.

Penny had a boyfriend when I met her, so any delusion I had about my chances was precluded immediately upon first introductions. Something wasn’t ever quite right about it, though. Like that first moment when William sees Penny and she walks over to him with an almost transient quality. She, like the film version of Penny, seemed to hover over her own life, seeing everything for what it was and giving me a perspective I’d never even considered before. She made me look at things differently and opened me up to a world my heart had only tentatively touched upon. She made things make sense to me and, more importantly, she made me realize that I had a place in the world worth holding onto.

Whether I ever amounted to anything else seemed to suddenly take a back seat to whether I remained an indispensable part of her life.

Another thing she had connecting her to Penny was her levels of being. One moment, she could be the life of any party. The next, she could be a shivering ball of emotions that tore your heart wide open to behold. I never knew pain in my life the way I did when I saw it in her eyes, and that kept me holding on. Holding on to whatever might be there, even though, as chance would have it, I was to become the quintessential William Miller. I was always in the background, studying her choices and experiences, secretly living them all with her. Moving on a parallel course with her to whatever end it might reveal. There were men in her life from all ends of the spectrum. Most of them I learned to hate for one reason or another, and yet she always made sure I knew I was but a phone call away.

One day during one of our many long talks, she made the mistake of telling me that she’d never been given flowers before. For someone as achingly beautiful as Penny was to me, this was just inconceivable. I snatched up some yellow roses fresh off the heels of our conversation and drove them down to her house, about a 25 minute drive. I got there to find her boyfriend at home (some basic and instinctive part of my brain had actually had the good sense to leave the flowers in the car), so I walked her outside to give them to her. I put them in her arms, took a step back, and told her to open her eyes. What I saw in the next few seconds is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to beauty in its purest form.

The look in her eyes made me catch my breath as if God himself was trying to tell me not to forget this…not ever. I felt my eyes welling up as hers did, and she started to smile down at those roses like they were the only thing that she’d ever wanted or needed in the world. A single tear fell, and she looked up at me with eyes I’d never seen before. Eyes that seemed to reach into my heart and take away all thoughts of anyone or anything but her and make me realize just how beautiful the world could be. I’d swear forever that I heard music that day in the way her tears glistened and her smile found its way to my heart. She gave me a hug before I left. One of those hugs like Penny’s hug with William at the airport. The kind where you love a lifetime’s worth in a single moment. If I hadn’t been sure before that day, I was sure every day of my life afterward that I loved her with all that I was or ever would be. I remember her trembling when she hugged me, and I had a fleeting thought about telling her how amazing she’d just made me feel, but I didn’t.

And that’s how it went for a long time. She was always one step ahead of me. Watch ‘Untitled’ during the scene where Penny and William are discussing what their names will be when they go to Morocco. She veers from serious conversation to joking whimsy in one breath, leaving William shaking his head in both confusion and adoration. That was me and Penny in a nutshell. She would lead me and I was always happy to follow her anywhere, even if it meant I lost my way home. And every year that passed, as her relationships got more and more sporadic and unsatisfying, so grew my uneasiness and desire to be with her. Penny was the reason I started writing. And she’s also the reason I started writing music. That summer, I wrote my first song.

It was written to be a love letter set to music. No chorus, no verse. Just a stream of consciousness rhyme that told her how I felt in a way that didn’t repeat a single phrase or emotion. For this, I got a lot of criticism from my friends, who thought at the time that what I was writing was far too untraditional to work. But it did work, and after an hour and a half laying the track down at a local recording studio, I had her birthday present in hand. Careful to tell her to open it when she was alone, I hand-delivered the song to her (wrapped and in a special jewel case of my own making) on a day in mid September. I’d been keeping that song close to me for over three months. I hadn’t let it leave my site. When I gave it to her, I let everything I was feeling go with it. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I’ll always regret not being able to see her face when she heard it.

A few nights later, she told me she thought my emotions had been misplaced, all but crushing any hope I’d been clinging to. But I didn’t (and still don’t) regret that song or what it meant to me. Something came over me later that evening, and I called her with a dogged determination to find some excuse to see her. She was hungry, and so I went out to get her something to eat. I drove it to her house and she invited me in. There was that look again. The one from the day I had first met her. Still there…still the most intense thing I’d ever seen. As she began to eat what I’d brought her, my mind began to swim for the first time. I got lost in her movements, her smile, and her spirit. Her words started to fade away into a sea of perception that shut out everything but her. It washed through me like a deliciously painful wave of the best and worst emotion imaginable. Somehow, she’d found a way in. A way in to that part of my heart that I’d locked safely away ever since it had been irreparably damaged. With that way all her own that was so subtle and effortless, she had single-handedly ripped down all of my walls and laid my emotions on the table in front of her. I was completely lost and open and free. And I was terrified.

I’d never run from a situation before, but that night, it was too much for me to deal with. I left and, as I ran to my car in her front driveway, I began to notice my hands were shaking. As I sat down, I gripped the steering wheel and tried to calm myself down. It was hard to breathe, and for all that I was, I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. It was then that I realized I would never be the same. I drove home feeling depressed, scared, and angry at myself for letting this thing get away. I knew how I felt and I wanted nothing more than to turn my car around, but I couldn’t. I drove all the way back home, and for all of those 25 minutes, I thought of nothing else. I sat alone in my driveway for ten minutes thinking about what I should do…and then I drove all the way back. It was the first thing I’d ever really done for myself.

I talked to her for two hours. Every emotion I’d had since I’d known her came out of me in a flood of expression that I felt I couldn’t get out fast enough. Everything I’d ever wanted to say rushed out of me like I had two hours and two hours alone to say what I’d wanted to spend a lifetime articulating. I was a mess. I was at that point that I’d snapped and nothing else mattered. All that mattered was that I loved her (and, in the words of Mr. Miller, if I couldn’t see that, then that was my biggest problem). Her face changed a thousand times as she listened to me. Picture the scene under the tree where William tells Penny about how Russell sold her to the other band. Watch her face during that entire scene. Watch her drift from seriousness to nonchalance to confusion without any apparent motivation. That was my Penny. The more I talked, the closer I got to the her that was there underneath all those layers of protection that she wore like a shroud over her heart. When I finally stopped talking, I had not an ounce of energy or love left in me that hadn’t just been draped over her, and she looked at me with eyes that seemed more sensitive, more passionate, more real than any I’d ever seen before. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Suddenly, without a sound, it was gone. She smiled and asked me if I was still planning on coming by to see her Halloween outfit the next day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had just gone through an emotion head on and emerged on the other side with a bruised but intact soul. She had asked me that most important of questions: “What kind of beer?”

And so it went until we had built up a six year friendship. Occasionally, I would write her another song. After the third one, I bought a house and invited her to move in as a roommate. She accepted. Before I’d let her, though, I asked her for one favor. I threw on a copy of a song that reminded me of her and asked her for one dance. After laughing a bit and making the obligatory joke out of an admittedly awkward situation, we both calmed down a bit. It occurred to me when I held her hand that I’d never done that before. In fact, I’d never touched her at all. That surprised and pleased me, because I knew at that point that what I felt was real. That it had always been.

That it had stemmed from her, and her alone. That it didn’t need a physical justification to exist and would remain without it. Around that time, something strange happened. She put her head on my chest and gave me a hug. I was only dancing as an aside, and I allowed myself one brief moment of selfishness. I imagined for that second that anything was possible and let myself get lost in her embrace. The room turned a calm and heavenly white, and in the span of time that it took her to turn and look at me and let go, I knew what it was to be truly happy for the first and last time in my life.

She moved out a few months later to move in with a friend, but we kept in touch. She always kept me at arms length. Far enough away that I felt distant, but never out of her life. I kept silent for the most part out of respect for her and her ongoing relationships. The memory of what I felt for her was enough to permeate through another relationship and keep me thinking about her.

And then, like the real Penny Lane, she had a brush with death. And, also like the real Penny, it had to do with someone she loved who didn’t love her back…at least not in the way she needed him to. The last time I watched ‘Untitled’ with her, I chanced to look at her when Penny asks William “why doesn’t he love me?” She turned her head away and looked down from the television for a moment. A small, insignificant moment maybe, but those were always the things I loved most about her. But, as with most things, my Penny emerged from the experience a stronger, more determined person with a greater sense of herself than she’d had before. And through it all, there I was being there as I always had been. As I always would be.

Recently, Penny and I spent a night hanging out with each other. Just a random night with no real plan attached. We bought sleeping bags and drove like maniacs. We laughed so hard our sides hurt. We bought snacks at the gas station and made a journey out of every moment. I had more fun in those few hours than I’d had in so long that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. She was lying there next to me watching a movie, and I couldn’t stop noticing all the little things that had never gone away. All the ways that she was still that girl I’d met six years ago, and all the wonderful ways she wasn’t. The way the light from the television reflected in her eyes until there was no doubt that she could take anything and make it heartbreaking if you looked at it through the right set of eyes.

Then she did something that in the six years that I’d known her she had never done before. She asked me why I loved her. I told her that she didn’t want to ask me that question. That there were too many things I’d held inside for too long to be of any use now. But she and I both knew that I’d tell her if she asked again. She asked again. And so I started talking. And every time I finished a sentence, my mind would wander to a new part of her that I hadn’t seen until that very instant. It was as if the closer I looked, the more I saw. And the more I saw, the more I had to say. The greater my need became to tell her about all the things I saw in her that she had never bothered to notice in herself. I kept talking for hours, and eventually, she fell asleep. I let my voice drop to a whisper, my head fall to the pillow, and kept talking to her as she slept. First for her and then for me, I said everything in those hours that I’d ever kept inside of me for whatever reason. It was what I would have said years ago if I’d had all the time in the world to say it instead of two hours. Every piece of myself that I’d kept from her was laid bare and all the hurt I’d felt slowly began to wash away.

A while later, she woke up, half awake and half asleep. She asked why I was still talking even though she’d gone to sleep. I said simply that she hadn’t told me to stop. I saw the remnants of a smile surrounded in a six year history cross her face as she drifted back to sleep, and I knew then for certain that I’d never be that in love again. I’d finally learned to be invisible. To share little things like that smile with her that no one could ever take from me. To build a collection of experiences like that I would always remember. She is my Penny Lane. A form of some kind for an emotion that has no form. A face for a feeling that doesn’t ever stay for very long but doesn’t go away without leaving its indelible mark on your heart. A template for everything that I know is possible and could be in a more perfect world. But more than all of this, Penny is my friend and I trust her.

And she trusts me. She trusts me to keep her set apart from all the others. To hold for her a place untouched by the rest of the world and to never let that diminish through anything.

At the end of ‘Untitled’ there’s a great moment where Russell tells William that he never knew her real name. The fans reading this now know his reaction, and it’s mine as well. The great thing about Penny is that she can always surprise me, even after I know all about her. If it’s conceivable, know simply that I have detailed her here with exceedingly broad strokes and that nothing I could ever put in writing could do her justice. As it was with Penny Lane in the film, my Penny’s charm is in those things you can’t write about. The little things that don’t translate to language or to anything but eyes built to see them. The in between moments. Things like “the real name you won’t reveal.” Well, I won’t reveal it here. That, like all the things I could have written about here but didn’t, is something I keep just for me.

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