My whole life I’ve been afraid, but I guess we all are in our own way. Most people have common fears like clowns, heights, or spiders. My fears run much deeper than that. But what scares me the most is fame. All my heroes, one by one, have been taken by the lure of fame. Kurt, Heath, Janis and Bourdain, all met their demise at the hands of fame. Some were taken by its spoils, and others by its immense pressures.
There are two things that make fame so dangerous. One, how fame is perceived, and the other, how fame is achieved. Fame has this reputation of grandeur and excitement. The lives of celebrities seem so perfect and exhilarating. We’ve all had posters on our bedroom walls of movie stars, athletes, and rock stars. We grow up dreaming of becoming rich and famous, just like them. But are they truly happy? Fame takes the one thing you love the most and uses it to get you. Whether your passion is music, sport, or art, it doesn’t matter. Once fame finds your genius, it sucks all the love out of it and leaves you feeling empty.
I was almost famous once. I was in a kick ass indie rock band called Divine Light. We wrote great songs and played some amazing shows. But life had other plans. I got really sick and had to stop performing, and, just like that, my dream was over. Do I miss it? Of course I do. If I could go back, redo it, and go for it, would I?
What if I told you, I did, and it almost killed me.
Back in 2005, I was living my rock star dream. Writing and performing music was all I cared about; it was effortless. Our band was playing all the top venues that downtown Toronto had to offer, El Mocambo, The Reverb, Kathedral, The Horseshoe Tavern, and Lee’s Palace. We even traveled to New York City and played The Knitting Factory. Being on stage was like a drug, and I was a full-blown junkie.
After a few months on the music scene, our band started generating a little buzz. The crowds were getting larger, the gigs were getting better, and we even had a few groupies. The feeling of hundreds of people singing along with you on stage was an out of body experience. I never felt more alive; life was perfect.
It was also the beginning of social media websites like Myspace and YouTube. I was constantly checking our sites to see how many fans we had. I noticed that this one girl would always come up on our page. She would leave quirky comments and say how much she loved our songs. Finally, I decided to send her a message. We hit it off right away. The next thing I knew we were talking every day.
The first time we met in person was before one of our shows at The Reverb. It was cold out; I was standing by the front doors, smoking, shivering as she walked up with her friends. She looked just like her picture. She had beautiful green eyes, dyed red hair, and had such a great style about her - ripped jeans and a cool rock t-shirt. Time stood still. We were both so nervous.
“Hi,” was all I could say.
“Hey,” was all she said back.
“You look just as pretty as your picture.”
“Thanks, are you nervous for your show tonight?”
“Honestly, all I could think about was meeting you. I was more nervous for that than anything. I got you something, it’s in our van, wanna come with me and get it?”
“Sure, I got you something too.”
I had bought her a stuffed animal, and she’d burned me a CD of all the songs that made her think of me. The one song I remember most was Hey there, Delilah by the Plain White Ts. We kissed for the first time. I remember it just feeling right. Love is hard to find and even harder to explain. From that point on we were inseparable.
A few months later, things started to fall apart with the band. As we got bigger, I started feeling the pressure to perform. I was constantly getting into fights with my band mates and I couldn’t write a decent song if my life depended on it. Rachyl was on my mind a lot, which was never really a problem, just something new and exciting to think about. Also, I was fascinated with all these famous people dying at such a young age. I couldn’t figure out why someone who had it all would do something like that? But worst of all, I started feeling sick.
It started one night at The Horseshoe Tavern, right before we had to go on stage. I was sitting on the dirty bathroom floor with my back against the stall door, clutching my stomach. I could hear the other band finishing their set. Rachyl was outside the bathroom door checking up on me. She yelled loud enough for me to hear her through the door and over the loud music.
“Rai, are you okay? The guys are calling for you, you’re on next.”
“I can’t move, my stomach is killing me.”
Once she heard that, she opened the door and walked right into the men’s room with no hesitation. She found my stall and came in.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Did you eat something bad? Are you nervous? What is it?”
“It’s not that. I’ve been feeling like this for a while now; not this bad though. I thought it would just go away. I feel so nauseous. It feels like something is squeezing my guts from the inside.”
“Okay, come on, you’re not playing tonight, let’s get you home.”
I knew the guys wouldn’t take this news well. This was a big show for us, and they were so excited to play that night. Rachyl started to gather her things while I went backstage to talk to the band. I opened the dressing room door and saw Maxx with his bass strapped to his shoulder, Higgins tuning his guitar, and Rikki twirling his drumsticks.
“I’m sorry, guys, I can’t go tonight. I know it’s a big show, but my stomach is killing me, I won’t make it through the set.”
“What? No, no. You’re joking right? What’s wrong with you.”
“I wish I was, Maxx. It’s my stomach, man, something’s wrong. I’ve been in the bathroom for twenty minutes. It feels like something is stabbing me from the inside.”
“The bartenders were telling me there’s music reps here tonight. This could be our shot. Don’t do this to us. Come on, suck it up, we’re going on tonight.”
“Look, man, I can barely walk, never mind playing guitar and singing. Rachyl’s taking me home. I’m sorry.”
Higgins and Rikki were silent. Maxx ripped off his bass in anger and said, “You do that, go home with your girlfriend. I’m going to the bar. I need a drink.”
That was the last time we were ever together as a band.
My condition got so bad, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was like I had the stomach flu, all day, every day. I was running to the bathroom ten times a night, and it didn't stop for a month. It’s when I began to see blood in the toilet, that I finally went to see my doctor.
I remember sitting in the doctor’s office with Rachyl by my side, thinking the worst.
“This is bad, Rachyl. What if it’s cancer? What am I going to do.”
“Stop, Rai, we don’t know what it is. The doctor has the results from your biopsies. Let’s not jump to any conclusions. Whatever it is, we’ll get through it, okay?”
When the doctor walked in and sat at her desk, my body went numb. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and braced myself as she opened my file and began to read the results.
“Mr. Starings, our tests have confirmed that you have a condition called ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory disease of the large intestine. There are some options we can explore, like steroid or biologic treatments, however with your severity, I’m not sure how effective they will be.”
“So, it’s not cancer?”
“No, fortunately not. But I must tell you colitis is not a pleasant disease. You will face painful abdominal cramping, weight loss, fatigue, severe bleeding, and uncontrollable urgency. Ulcerative colitis is incurable. Living with this disease will be challenging, that is why I’m recommending surgery.”
“What is the surgery, doctor?” Rachyl asked.
“We’ll remove your damaged large intestine or colon and you will have to wear an ostomy bag. I know this seems extreme, but it’s the only way for you to resume some normalcy to your life.”
“No way, I’m not doing that. I don’t care how many steroids I have to take, I’m never doing that.”
“Okay, Rai, I understand this isn’t an easy decision. We’ll start with a steroid program and monitor your condition. Steroids are a temporary fix; if your condition worsens, surgery will be your only option.”
After we left the doctor’s office, I didn’t leave my house for a year. The steroids would work for a while, but the pain would always come back. So, I ended up having the surgery. I started to develop terrible anxiety and depression. I would isolate myself and wonder, why did this happen to me? Why then? Was I making myself sick? Was I trying to find a way out? Was it stress? Was it fear? Whatever the reason, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. So, I quit the band; that’s when the music stopped, and my dream died.
♫ ♫ ♫
It’s been fifteen years to the day, and I still think about it. I’m forty now, and I’m at that stage in life when you start to look back and reflect. What if I hadn’t got sick? What if I hadn’t met Rachyl? What if I hadn’t quit? I miss playing music. It’s weird, one day you wake up and realize you’ve become who you are. All your choices and all your hardships are just a distant memory and life just is.
I love my life now. I have two beautiful daughters and an amazing wife. I have a job that I enjoy, and great friends to hang out with. I have a new appreciation for my ostomy now. It took me some time, but I came to realize that it’s better to have an ostomy and be able to live your life, then it is to live with the constant ups and downs of ulcerative colitis. But there’s this little spark in me that still shines. When you have a passion for something, it’s an obsession, it’s hard to just stop. You can ignore it for a while, but eventually it creeps up on you. I miss my band. I miss the anticipation, the adrenaline, and the rush of the stage. I miss writing songs; it’s my therapy.
It's early morning and the whole house is asleep. It’s my favorite time of the day. This is my time to just sit and think. No noise, no commotion, just me, my coffee, and my thoughts. Of course, just as I sit at the breakfast table and pour milk on my cereal, my phone starts to vibrate. Maxx is calling.
My friends and I still talk to each other like we’re back in high school. I’ve had the same group friends for twenty-five years now. They’re vulgar, stubborn, and obnoxious. But, at the end of the day, we’ve been through a lot together, they’re still my boys. Growing up in Toronto, you get to learn about all different cultures. The population is so diverse here, I’ve had friends of all different backgrounds and religions. Maxx is one of my closest buddies. We’ve made amends for ending the band. Once everyone knew how serious my illness was, they were incredibly supportive.
“What’s up, pig. It’s six in the morning, what the hell do you want?”
“Did you watch it last night?”
“Remarkable, obviously, you airhead.”
“No, I couldn’t. The girls were tired and Rachyl was working late. I had to lie in bed with them until they fell asleep. Why?”
“It was a crazy good episode, and at the end, they ran an ad for the upcoming season. They’re looking for musicians. You should totally audition. You keep talking about how we could have made it, and how much you miss it; this is your chance, go for it!”
“I don’t know, man. I’m old, bald, and chubby. I’m really not the rock star type anymore.”
“That doesn’t matter, man. You have the story and the talent, that’s all they care about. All you have to do is sit in front of the camera and tell your story, while they get some actors to recreate it on screen. Come on, man, go for it!”
“Okay, calm down. I’ll look into it. No promises.”
“Alright, good; you still coming over to watch the hockey game tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I told Rachyl already. I’ll be there.”
“Cool, alright, later.”
Remarkable is this new reality show that everyone is talking about. Basically, they take everyday people who had to give up on their dreams an opportunity to showcase why they were remarkable. I doubt they’d pick me.
I shove a spoon full of cereal in my mouth, lean over to grab my laptop, flip it open, and search the show. The first thing that comes up is an article about a missing featured artist. I remember hearing about this story. Amy Strong went missing during her season of the show. The press has always assumed it was an overdose or suicide, and eventually the story faded away. Just another artist taken by the power of fame. The investigation is still ongoing. Before I can finish reading the article, I hear a little voice behind me.
My little one, Alyssa, usually comes down right before I have to leave for work. I love it; I get to see her before I go. She’s half asleep, wearing her purple onesie, and holding her stuffy under her arm.
“Good morning, Aly, how did you sleep?”
“Good. Daddy, I’m hungry.”
“Okay, baby, come sit. I’ll make you some cereal.”
As I get up to make her a bowl, she slides onto my chair and starts eating my cereal. She strains her eyes as the bright light from the laptop is blinding this early in the morning.
“What are you doing, Daddy?” she asks, as she reaches for her glasses.
“Nothing, I was just reading something about music. Aly, can I ask you a question. Do you like Daddy’s songs?”
“Of course, Dada, you’re the best music player on the earth.”
I slide her bowl of cereal in front of her and walk over to the laptop. I put on a few of my songs and smile as I watch her sing along.
“Okay, Aly, I have to go to work now. Stay here until Mom comes down. Kiss Nellie and Mommy for me. I’ll see you tonight. Love you.”
“Love you too, Daddy.”
I give Aly a big hug and kiss on the forehead, grab my chef’s roll, and make my way to work.
I know the restaurant is going to be busy today. I have so much “mise en place” to get through for a big function later tonight. Luckily, I scored the morning shift and will get to go home at a reasonable hour. Working in the food industry is a whole other world. We work long hours, are constantly on our feet, and working under immense pressure. When the whole world is enjoying their weekends and their holidays, we’re hard at work making your family time special.
The day goes by surprisingly quick, considering all I can think about is that show. I’ve seen it a few times and I’ve always found it inspiring. To hear all the stories of pain and regret, only to be overcome, and replaced with gratitude and happiness in the end. I can relate to them. I deserve that chance, I just don’t know if I’m good enough anymore. But, watching Alyssa sing my songs made me wonder if maybe I am? After what I’ve been through, I deserve this just as much as anyone.
As soon as I get home, I throw my keys on the counter, pull off my jacket, and head straight for the computer. I search the website and scroll down to their “contact us” section and find “submit your audition tape for 2020”. I click on it, give them the gist of my story, upload a few songs, and hit send.
I feel a rare moment of inspiration to play my songs. I keep all my old gear at the ready in the basement, not that I go down there much. I’d love to say that I play guitar every day, but I’d be lying. As the years go on, the less I play, and the worse I feel I am at it. Every once in a while, I dust off the guitar, plug in the mic, and try to belt out a few of my old tunes.
I pick up my guitar, grab a pick from on top of the amplifier, and start strumming a few chords. I begin playing one of Rachyl’s favorite songs. As soon as I start to sing, my voice starts to crack. My fingers slip off the fretboard, and the guitar lets out a dreadful rattle. It’s a terrible feeling when you realize you’ve lost the skills to do something you love. I can’t do it anymore. Who am I kidding? I can’t do this. I switch everything off, place my guitar back on the stand, and make my way upstairs.
I walk into the kitchen and see Rachyl. She’s wearing her favorite fuzzy grey sweater, skinny jeans, and has her turquoise glasses on. She’s got some old nineties rock tunes playing and she’s doing her best to sing along. I still get butterflies when she enters a room. She has the most beautiful green eyes you’ve ever seen.
She walks over to the stove and opens the oven. Our family is on a vegetarian kick right now. At first, I wasn’t a big fan, but I prefer it now. She’s a great cook. When we first met her diet consisted of Kraft Dinner and Mr. Noodles. I helped with her cooking skills along the way, but she’ll never admit it. Even though I’m a chef, she does most of the cooking.
“Hey, when did you get home? I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Not too long ago. I went downstairs to play a little guitar. How was your day?”
“That’s nice; I love when you play your old songs. My day wasn’t bad, work was crazy, and then the kids were driving me nuts. Pretty normal day.”
“Hey, I wanted to ask you something; that show, Remarkable, what do you think about me auditioning?”
“I didn’t want to say anything, but I was hoping you’d do it.”
“Really? You think they’d pick me? You’re the second person to tell me that. Maxx was telling me to audition.”
“Well, are you?” she asks.
“Maybe. I’ll think about it. I’m not sure I still got “it”.”
“Of course you still got it, you never lost it. I’m not going to pressure you, just do what makes you happy. Either way, I’ll support you. But promise me, you won’t do anything before telling me and the girls first.”
“I won’t, I promise. What’s for dinner?”
“I made veggie quesadillas and I picked up some ice cream for dessert.”
“Let me guess, pistachio?”
“Yes, you know it’s my favorite. Don’t worry, I got a different one for you guys. Can you call the kids, please, dinner is ready.”
I don’t want to tell Rachyl I submitted my songs and story yet. There’s no way they’re going to pick me anyway, and the rejection will be much easier to handle if no one else knows. My insecurities always take over in these moments.
The kids come running into the kitchen and jump into their spots. Rachyl brings the food over and places it in the middle of the table. We all sit, laugh, tell stories about our day, and enjoy our family dinner together.
It’s been a few weeks and I haven’t heard anything from Remarkable. The kids are in school, Rachyl is at work, and I have the day off. All this music talk is giving me the itch to play. I head downstairs and start up the equipment again.
I start with a few old songs and it feels good this time. My vocals are actually sounding decent and I get through the songs without missing a note; maybe I do still got it. I mess around with a few chords and try and write a new tune. It’s been awhile since I wrote a new song. Sometimes I think musicians have a song writing expiration date. Writing songs early on felt so effortless and the songs all came out sounding like hits. When you’re at the peak of your songwriting, songs seem to come out of thin air, but now it feels like I’m reaching for something that just isn’t there. I try and hear the melody, but nothing is coming to me. I get through a few versus, scribble down some lyrics, and switch everything off.
I make my way upstairs, load up the coffee machine, and check my emails. There’s a message from the show. It says I’ve been selected to the next phase of the audition. I’m to come to their downtown office today and meet with a guide. Even though I’m reading it, I still don’t believe it. I’m sure a bunch of people got the same message. I sip my coffee and try and make sense of what to do.
Turing forty is a strange time in anyone’s life. It’s like a chemical in your mind releases these new thoughts and feelings. A few months ago, I would have never even considered doing something like this. But something inside me is telling me to go for it. I owe it to myself to take this opportunity, after my chance slipped away all those years ago. I think about my daughter singing along to my songs, and how Rachyl fell in love with me because of music. Besides, the message only says next phase, so I haven’t even been chosen yet. If anything, it will be an experience, even if they don’t end up picking me. I’m going for it.
It's early February in Toronto and I haven’t seen a blue sky in weeks. It’s always chilly and overcast this time of year. The snow is melting but it’s still slushy, and my car is forever dirty from all the salt trucks. Traveling downtown is always a struggle for me. We live about an hour away and the traffic is always terrible. I’m traumatized from having colitis all those years; I’m always making sure I know where the nearest bathrooms are. But I make it there just in time.
The Remarkable building is located in Yorkville, a fashionable part of downtown where all the new chic companies are found. As I get closer, I can see a second building connected to it. I follow the signs and enter the head office building.
The office space is small, but comfortable. There’s a receptionist at the front desk. I walk up nervously and wait as he finishes with his phone call.
“Hi, I got an email from you guys to come in.”
“Great, your name?” he asks.
“Okay, Rai, have a seat and your guide will be with you shortly.”
I walk over to the empty lounge and sit in the nearest chair. The glass coffee table is stocked with celebrity magazines spread neatly down the middle. I notice three abstract paintings of elephants on the wall and a giant fern tucked in the far corner.
“Right this way, Mr. Starings.”
I follow the receptionist down a narrow hallway to a room that looks like a combination of a doctor’s office and science lab. There are computers, medical equipment, and strange machines everywhere. Before the door can close behind me, a man walks in from a door at the other end of the room.
“Hello, my name is Henry. I’ll be your guide.”
He adjusts his thick black reading glasses and spins into his office chair.
“So, Starr, tell me, why are you here?”
It takes me a second to realize that he just called me Starr.
“A couple of people close to me told me I should audition for the show. I was in a rock band back in the day, but I had to stop. Sometimes I think about my life and how I wish I could go back and do things differently. I hear you do that here, so here I am. Wait, sorry, did you just call me Starr?”
“That’s what you prefer to be called, isn’t it?”
“Well, most of my friends call me Starr because of my last name; it was my stage name, but how do you know that?”
“We do our research here. Let’s see, fifteen years ago you were in a band called Divine Light, correct?”
“Now you’re a chef, you have a wife, two kids, and I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing, my condolences.”
“Wow, you really do your research. You seem to know a lot about me, but I don’t know much about you. What exactly do you do here?”
“Well, simply put, I’m a guide for those lucky enough to relive a moment in their life. Here at Remarkable, we give people like yourself the opportunity to go back to a point in their life where they walked away from their dreams, and we let them relive it.”
“Are you saying I’m one of those lucky people?”
“I am indeed. You have a special story and extraordinary music, the world needs to hear it. Only one individual each year is featured in our program; we’ve chosen you.”
“Really? Why me?”
“The moment we heard your music, we knew. There’s something unique about your sound. As we dug deeper, we learned about your unfortunate disability, and we felt you deserved a second chance.”
I think to myself, this seems almost too good to be true. I have so many questions, but I must admit, it feels good to hear my music appreciated.
“How exactly do you do this? Is there a set and a script? I’m not an actor. How does it all work?” I ask.
“Not exactly. This room is a program chamber, this is where you will enter the program. First, your mind will be connected to our computers using a neural headset. Then, we will sedate you, placing you in a deep sleep. We’ll inject a serum in your bloodstream containing special molecules that will allow our program to travel through your memories. We will locate the exact moment where you strayed from your dreams and awaken your subconscious in the program. Everything you do from that point on will be relived in your mind, and we press record. We will help generate the backdrop, but the outcome and the storyline will be up to you.”
“Wait. So, there are no actors? It all happens in a computer program in my head?”
“Exactly, all the people in your life will exist in the program as they did fifteen years ago, as will you. A virtual world is much more cost efficient then creating a real one. We alter everyone’s appearance just enough to make it seem like a production, and to avoid any unwanted lawsuits. You’ll only be here for a few nights, three or four sessions at the most, once a week. We don’t recommend more than that. Time ticks differently in the program. We will have all the film we need. It will take us a few days to edit it, and a few days to promote it. Then, the episodes will air, and you will be the next star of Remarkable.”
“That’s crazy, it looks so real. I always thought it was actors. Why haven’t I heard about this? And what’s in this serum?”
“Some people have a moral problem with creating a virtual world. To avoid any troubles, we prefer to keep this information on a need to know basis. But I can assure you, everything is safe, tested, and certified by the Federal Communications Commission. While you’re asleep, your body will be monitored by a medical professional. The memory serum is complex. Amongst other things, it contains copious amounts of elephant neurons, due to their excellent memories.”
I take a second to think about it. I know I should talk to Rachyl first. I don’t usually make snap decisions like this. I’m always over-analyzing everything, trying to find something wrong with it. This sounds crazy, but you know what, this is my chance to make things right. A second chance to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. Plus, Rachyl told me I should do it. I deserve this. Before I can answer, Henry says,
“I must make something perfectly clear. If you do this, you will lose the lifestyle that you and your family are accustomed to. Privacy and freedom are things we all take for granted. Fame can take its toll on a person, it’s dangerous. You will transform from being someone with little means, to being an instant celebrity. But one thing I can assure you, all those regrets you’ve been carrying around about not following your musical dreams will be gone. If you accept, you will start right now. I have all the paperwork ready for you to sign. Is this something you’re willing to accept?”
Almost uncontrollably, my heart answers before my mind can process the risks. “I’m in. Where do I sign?”
I sign all the appropriate paperwork and Henry shows me where to get undressed. He hands me a hospital gown and a plastic bag for all my belongings. My mind is racing, and my body is sweating, I can’t believe I’m doing this. My whole life I’ve put others before myself, it’s in my nature, but this time I know, I need to do this, for me.
I walk back into the chamber room and lie flat on the chair. Henry begins to hook me up to the machine. I feel a cold, mesh-like metal material covering the top of my head. Small wires gently crawl down the side of my head and attach to my temples. Henry hangs a saline bag on an IV pole and inserts a needle in my left arm where the fluids will enter. Then, he fills a syringe with a fluorescent purple serum and places it on the tray beside him. He grabs the gas mask and begins to administer the sedation. I start to think about what Henry said, about my freedom, about my family. Regret starts to set in. The room suddenly becomes cold and the hum of the machine becomes louder.
“Starr. Can you hear me?” Henry asks.
Two figures walk in through a door on the opposite side of the chamber. It’s hard for me to make out who they are, as the sedation begins to take over. Henry comes in close and tells me something that only he and I can hear.
“Rai. When you’re in the program, if you ever feel lost or helpless, call for me.”
“How?” I ask.
“Just call out my name, I’ll be watching.” Henry backs up quickly and continues with his directions. “Okay, Starr, close your eyes and count back from thirty."
I begin to count down. Thirty... I can't believe I'm doing this. Twenty-nine... Am I that crazy to trust this guy? Twenty-eight… Do I want this so badly that I would give up my whole life? Twenty-seven... I can't do it, get me out of here. Twenty-six…
"Starr. Starr. Starr!" Rikki yells from behind the drum kit as I look back at him from behind the microphone. “Snap out of it!”
It’s too late. I’m in…