By the time I was fifteen, I’d mastered the art of being a good girl. I wore my uniform skirt to my knees, raised my hand in English, refused to sneak cigarettes before class. I smiled a lot.
I was called only once into the guidance counselor’s office. She’d heard rumors that I was having a hard time and maybe even hurting myself. When I told her I was fine, she looked relieved and said, “When I first heard, I thought to myself, ‘Now wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right. I know Naima.’”
I was good at my role.
Every day when I got home from school, I’d shed my good-girl persona by locking myself in the bathroom and listening to rock and roll. The first time I listened to Nevermind, I sat on the bathroom floor with the liner notes and jewel case open on my lap. I was working my way through ’90s staples, and Nirvana had beat out Jagged Little Pill that afternoon at HMV. I let the first track—their most famous—rip through me. It was by turns dark and pretty, raucous and simple. Even when Kurt wasn’t singing, I could hear his voice. His presence hovered over every bar. The album played, and I felt that someone had reached down into my throat, grabbed hold of some vital, neglected organ, and squeezed, as if to say, “I know what’s there.”
I was a scholarship kid at a posh girls’s school on the Upper East Side, a Brooklyn girl with a bright future. My father worked second jobs and tutored me in math; my mother penny-pinched and had taught me how to read, even as she was learning English herself. And yet, I didn’t feel like a prized child. I knew myself to be a grave disappointment, unworthy of all their sacrifices, their hopes.
I wasn’t as thin as my mother wanted me to be, or as pretty, and if I didn’t lose weight, she was certain I’d end up alone. I tried, and, in the meantime, I wore my yellow rain jacket everywhere—during class, at my grandmother’s—so that no one would see my body and know what an embarrassment I’d become to the parents I wanted so desperately to please. Kurt understood: “I’m worst at what I do best.”
I was weak too, a crier. I couldn’t handle my parents’ advice, their truth talk. I didn’t want to believe they were right, that I was ugly, fat, sensitive, as entitled as any rich white girl from school, but sometimes I wondered, “And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard.”
No matter how bad things were at home, I remained a star at school. “The water is so yellow, I’m a healthy student”—I could write English papers in an hour, memorize flashcards on the train uptown. I was fine, aside from the little scrapes and nicks, the incisions I used to prove my unhappiness wasn’t all in my head. Sometimes, it didn’t seem so bad, my nights in the bathroom, my loneliness. Maybe this was just what it was to be alive, to be here one day, then another, and the next. I just had to hold on until college, when I could get away. I sang my determination, “I like it, I’m not gonna crack.”
The music was a boon to me, but eventually I wanted more. I searched for everything I could find about Nirvana. Mostly, I found photographs: Kurt swinging from a chandelier, Kurt in a floral dress, Kurt in bug-eye sunglasses, glamorous, and frail. I admired his rule breaking, how sad, irreverent, and ferocious he could be. He expressed a whole range of life, while I was stuck to a single setting: good. But I easily saw the kinship between my insides and his outsides. In my diary, I wrote, “Kurt Cobain = me.”
I was aware of the ironies: I was a Brooklyn girl; Kurt grew up in Aberdeen. His hair was blond (except when it was pink or blue); his mother didn’t speak to him in Spanish. I was a daughter and a sister; Kurt had started a family of his own. In 1991, I was five years old.
But when I listened to Nevermind, the gaps didn’t matter. Kurt and I had the whole world in common.
Few understood my infatuation. My boyfriend at the time was a painter, a Puerto Rican kid who wore eyeliner and fishnet stockings for sleeves. He got it. For anniversaries and birthdays, we bought each other Nirvana paraphernalia: postcards, biographies, Kurt’s journals. Once, I gave him a guidebook to Seattle. The city, its mountains and gray, symbolized escape to us. It was The Land of Kurt—a place where we could be ourselves. We planned to live there one day.
Even as a teenager, I knew my worship of Nirvana was both balm and fuel for my depression. When I sang along with Kurt, I felt less alone (“I’m not the only one”), but I also affirmed my misery as a fixed, integral, if unseen, part of who I was. My depression was as definitive to me as my race, gender, name, and religion. All things Nirvana—In Utero, Unplugged, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah—were my most sacred artifacts.
At Yale, I hung a poster of Kurt in every room I had, even after I found other bands, friends. I still fought with my parents. I still hated my body. I still strained to earn A’s even as I lost days to my depression. But I was freer than I’d been in Brooklyn. I had my own space. I wasn’t fifteen anymore. I’d finally arrived at the future I’d been living for. When I graduated, I threw my poster Kurt away.
I was twenty-six when I finally made it to Seattle. A friend of mine moved out west, and I leapt at the chance to sleep on her couch and explore the city. For days, I walked through the unseasonable March snow to Volunteer Park and Pike Place Market, I ate pho and Ezell’s fried chicken, read books at Elliot Bay, posed in front of the Fremont Troll, drank far too much coffee. I scheduled a trip to the Experience Music Project to see an exhibit on the Washington grunge scene. It was the closest thing I could imagine to a shrine for Kurt.
To the other visitors, I must have looked sappy and nostalgic: a long-haired girl in Converses and busted jeans, reading old set lists and crying, leaning in to look at the grainy photographs, the powder-blue guitar with the broken fretboard that used to belong to him.
Cliché or not, I cried for Kurt—because he’d suffered, and created so much, and the world would never know what else he might have done. I cried, too, for the man I’d invented, whom I hadn’t known but cleaved to, and for the girl I’d been when I’d claimed Kurt as myself.
I was slowly learning to do more with my life than hurt and pretend I wasn’t hurting. I’d started therapy, a novel. I was deep into a relationship with a man who was kind and didn’t listen to rock music at all—he preferred salsa. I wanted to publish my book, get a tattoo, cut off all my hair just to upset my mother and learn I could be pretty without it. I wanted to get married, drink beers with my friends, ride my bicycle in the summer. I wanted to see the Olympic Mountains on a clear day before I left. I couldn’t believe sometimes how much I wanted to live.
As I left the exhibit, I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to explain what it had meant to anyone without sounding like a fangirl or dope. It’s easy to deride the attachments of teenage girls, but I was convinced that what I’d felt in the museum was holy.
Out on the street, I searched for a bus that would take me back to the apartment that I’d call home for the next few days. I was emptied out from all my crying, and lost, but I didn’t quite feel alone. I’d carried something out of EMP with me—a memory, a riff, I couldn’t say.
It may have been raining, and I may have sung to myself as I wandered, “And I’ve got this friend, you see, who makes me feel.”