1986: Liz—who you are in love with, while she thinks of you as friends who fuck—has always wanted a bed of rose petals to fuck on. She tells you this is a fantasy she has had for years. The night before her birthday, you get your friend Duff to help you and you…well, you pretty much steal (to use the correct and not-that-romantic word), every rose in the Boston Commons. Fuck the tourists—you are trying to please Liz. You give Duff a baggie of pot for his help and he wanders off down Charles Street. You put the clipped rose heads in 5 gallon paint buckets, and carry the buckets over to Liz’s apartment and you pluck all the petals and spread them on her bed before she gets home from her late poetry class.
It does not end well. Roses have insects. A lot of them.
But you tried. And you unintentionally showed Liz that she most certainly did not, from then forward, want a bed of rose petals. At least you saved her from pining for that for the rest of her life.
2003: You are about to play your first sober show. Ever. You played your first show in 1979 when you were thirteen years old. You are thirty-seven years old. You have been on stage for years, but never like this. You are ten years clean and you are shaking—not just your hands, but your whole body. Every molecule of you vibrating at once the way it does when the train comes into Union Station. You have no idea what to do. You want a drink. You would rather be loaded and alone than clean and with people. And you are scared shitless.
Late Summer, 1988: Jane has kicked you out of her apartment and you sleep at your friend Jay’s band rehearsal space. Jay used to be in a band with Jane. She fired him. He jokes that you’ve both been fired by Jane. The building’s an old factory warehouse and Jay’s turned his enormous second floor into six rehearsal rooms and one main recording room. There are couches all over the open spaces, but no beds anywhere. Technically, no one is allowed to live in the building—it’s zoned commercial—but Jay and his artist neighbors upstairs all live there. The only working bathroom is the one that must have been the men’s restroom when it was still a factory. The women’s bathroom door has a giant sheet of plywood screwed over the door and a hideous smell that makes you have to hold your breath while you piss. In the men’s room, there are three urinals—one working—and a stall with no door. You’ve been in drunk tanks with cleaner toilets. There is no shower. You wash, when you do, in a deep sink you also do laundry and dishes in. Though Jay and you buy take out and almost never use plates when there’s enough money left after drugs. So, really, it’s coffee cups that you rinse out in the deep sink.
When you first get here, you sleep on one of the couches that faces a window that has a view of Boston—the lights of the south side swelling into the affluent lights of the back bay and then the financial district. The city blinking with life and promise. You can’t see Jane’s apartment from where you are, but you know exactly where it is and you know you could point to it if not for the tall buildings between Jay’s building and hers and you look out the window at night with the beauty of the city shimmering and you wonder how you fucked up again and you wonder how many more years you can live the way you do.
Still, the great night view cheers you at first, but then you realize that bands are booked for practice at all hours, so the lights are on and the noise is deafening in the main room.
You move to the floor in an equipment storage room. It’s not comfortable, but it’s the only room Jay never rents to bands, so no one will come in and tell you to move so they can make some god-awful racket they think someone might actually pay to listed to.
You haven’t played guitar in weeks. You left one at Jane’s apartment—not your best, but still, yours—and you don’t know if you can or will get it back. You start to wonder if you will ever care enough to be in another band. You care less about making music every day. Your bands keep falling apart and you don’t have the energy to start another. You audition for one band, but by the second practice you realize you are way too much of a control freak to join anyone else’s band.
You think that maybe it’s time to do something other than music, but you have no idea what. Jay gives you keys to the studio. The building is within a block of a liquor store and a cheap Chinese restaurant that has greasy heat plates where every dish is a dollar.
You lock yourself in the storage room and you turn out the lights and you drink and take twenty or thirty valium a day (you’d rather have pain meds, but you can’t afford them—a friend works at a hospital pharmacy and sells valium to you dirt cheap) while you listen to Richard and Linda Thompson’s SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS over and over. You listen to it loud enough that you don’t hear any of the bands that are practicing, though you feel the vibrations from the bass and drums in the floor and walls. SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS is a whole album that’s centered around the breakup of a relationship—sung by the couple who were breaking up while they recorded it. It’s the perfect soundtrack to beat yourself up to.
You listen to it as closely as you can and you’re drinking and you think of Jane and after a while you realize that the whole record has a brilliant musical parallel to the emotional content. The songs are about love ending, about the lingering pain and love left when it’s over, about the nature of unresolved emotions. And after listening to the record nonstop for days, you realize than none of the songs resolve musically. The songs don’t end on the root note—which would make them resolve pleasantly to the ear. They end on unexpected unresolved chords—the 4th or the 5th. Form meeting content perfectly. You think Richard Thompson’s a genius for making an album whose lyrical content is about the unease of a lack of emotional resolve and then writing music that mirrors that discomfort. You think you are a genius for recognizing what Richard Thompson must have only put there for very smart, incredibly perceptive listeners.
During the day, you listen to SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS and you read John Cage’s essays on melody and dissonance. About how any dissonance that resolves to melody is ultimately pleasing to the average human ear. And how any melody—no matter how beautiful—that resolves to dissonance actually hurts and disturbs the listener.
How things end, in music—how they resolve—that’s what defines the whole experience.
At night, you lie in the dark and listen to SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS and you think of how brilliant a document to pain and a constant lack of closure and suffering Richard Thompson wrote, and you think that no one except you and Richard Thompson could possibly understand the agony of love gone to dissonance. No one could know how this lingering pain could feel, except for you and Richard Thompson. And Joni Mitchell. And Bob Dylan.
1981: You are at a keg party when some rich kid’s parents are out of town. You know his parents. You wait on them at the country club on the other side of town. His father treats you like shit. In his master bedroom, you get drunk and you break a lamp. You immediately feel bad about it because the kid will get punished, while his asshole father could buy the King of Prussia’s lamps.
Later, you steal a handful of pills from his mother’s bathroom—you have no idea what they are, so you start with only two, believing that to be responsible and moderate—a blue one and an orange-ish one you will come to know is valium. In the living room, someone hands you a guitar (you can’t remember now if you brought one or someone else did—probably someone else as you are still afraid to play in front of people—especially girls—so you wouldn’t have brought yours), you play the intro to The Who’s “Substitute.” You play the three chord intro twice and Tanya Rosenblum starts making out with you. She’s in the school band with you and has never seemed to notice you, while you’ve had a crush on her since the start of the year.
In the school band, you play oboe. No one has ever made out with you after you played the oboe for 15 seconds. You can’t talk to girls unless you’re wasted—and when you’re wasted you can’t shut up and tend to embarrass yourself. Guitar players, you realize, don’t have to talk much. They can play someone else’s music and sing someone else’s song and get treated as if they’ve created something. Tanya Rosenblum grabs your cock hard through your jeans while biting your lower lip. You wonder why anyone plays the fucking oboe.
1987: A guy you play guitar with named Mick mentions that, in his words, “You seem to fuck a lot of lesbians.”
This does seem to be true, but you and Mick have lived together long enough that your default is to disagree with him about nearly everything. “I don’t think that’s true.”
“Either lesbians, or women on the last stop on the train in Hetero-ville. What the fuck do you do to them to drive them from a whole fucking gender, dude?”
“I don’t do anything to them,” you say.
Mick says, “I will say this much. Your lesbians don’t tend to look like lesbians.”
“Do you have any idea how stupid you sound?” you say.
“Hey. I call them as I see them. That’s why I think you might be doing something you’re unaware of.”
You think Mick’s ridiculous. Though you have, on four, maybe five, occasions woken up with friends who were lesbians—who had identified as such for years—who looked over at you in the morning, afternoon or night…whenever it was that they woke up and said some variation on, “I can’t believe I just fucked a guy.”
You have no idea what it means. If it means anything at all.
The next day at work, you and your friend Lori are sneaking beers out of the walk-in cooler after your shift. You and Lori tend to fight over the same tables because you have the same general taste in women. The running joke between you is to scream, “no, she’s mine!” when you’re drunk after work. Others don’t seem to find it so charming, but you and Lori crack each other up. Of course, you’re both pretty much always drunk, too. You tell her about what Mick said. She says, “Yeah, no. I mean, yeah, I’ve noticed it, but I don’t get it.”
“Shit,” you say. “Thanks a lot.”
“Well, I don’t mean…well, either you’ve got something like, really feminine that appeals to a woman who doesn’t tend to be attracted to men. And I could see that, I think, maybe. Yeah. Or you are just, you know, like…well…something less complementary than that.”
She opens both of the beers and hands you one. “I don’t know. But, I’m guessing, well, maybe you put out something either really appealing or something really unappealing about men.” She takes a sip. “Or, like, some of both, maybe.”
2009: The doctors estimate you’ve had seven major concussions over the course of your life. Three or four when you were a basketball player in high school before drugs and a knee torn in three places (which got you lots of pain meds and, as a result, seemed very much worth it) brought what was left of your athletic career to a close.
A few more came in car accidents—one so bad it fractured your neck—a hairline, but apparently dangerous and close enough to the spinal cord that you are lucky you can walk or move your arms. You came, a doctor tells you years later (when you have insurance and get MRIs and the full workup for your years of blinding, debilitating migraines), incredibly close to being a quadriplegic when you were twenty-three.
“When did you break your neck?” the doctor says.
“I don’t think I did.”
He points to the fracture and taps it with the end of his pen. You hear his pen make a ticking sound on the X-Ray and the glass behind it. “Another centimeter and you’d be answering me by blinking your eyes once for yes and two for no.”
“So, do these explain my headaches?” you say.
The doctors tell you it explains some of the headaches and he sits you down and tells you about CTE and about your risk for early dementia and the loss of the control of your frontal lobe and the loss of your memory.
You are a writer. Hell, you are a human being. You ARE your memories. Take away a person’s memories and you may as well be brain dead and on machines. You might as well be a plate of mashed potatoes. This scares you more than anything. To slowly disappear in front of your wife’s and friends’ eyes. To have come this far to be able to love and enjoy life and truly be worthy of other people’s love. To know that someone else is more important than you and that she would have to watch this—watch what makes you what and who you are slip away by degrees like the tide going out.
You will become someone who is Not You. You will forget when you met your wife. You will forget the look in her eyes and her smile where one eye closes more than the other and the asymmetry that makes it so beautiful. You will forget the terror you felt at seeing her fear when she went into emergency surgery and you thought it was the beginning of the end and you decided, calmly, that you would kill yourself if she died.
You will lose every bad and every beautiful moment of your life and you will cease to exist.
You will, you promise yourself—before you lose everything you remember—before you forget how much you love the people you love, kill yourself.
The worst part will not be the total loss at the end. It will be the start—when you still know who you are, and you know what—and who—you are losing.
This, you worry about. Always.
1984-1988: Michelle Easter is indirectly responsible for you ending up a writer. You meet her when you are both in Acting and Movement majors. She’s an ex-dancer who wears men’s Levi’s button-fly jeans low on her hips and wife beaters and she has the first pierced nipples you’ve ever seen—even if you only see them through the wife-beaters. If Audrey Hepburn shaved her head and looked like you should never ever fuck with her, she might have looked like Michelle Easter. You are smitten. She, at best, doesn’t seem to be. You get it in your head, though, that with enough exposure, she will come to realize that you are a sweet, damaged, young man whose only crime (well, except for your actual crimes, but no need to let her know that at this stage) is being a little (lot) lost in the world.
Middle of freshman year, Michelle transfers to Tech Theater. So do you. She ends up designing stages. You crawl through with grades barely good enough to keep your financial aid. Sophomore year, you are in Holland, so that saves you the trouble of transferring wherever Michelle transferred that year. Junior year, Michelle takes poetry. This, you think, is great—you’ll get to know Michelle better AND, who knows, you might well be a poet.
You are truly one of the most dreadful twenty year old poets in the history of the form. Michelle gets A’s and the professor tells her she’s brilliant. His only critique of your work is to ask you in front of the class, every single week, “What makes you think this is a poem?”
Late in the term he asks you again what makes you think what you handed in is a poem.
You hate this fucking poet. “I don’t know. It’s all skinny and on the left?”
You think you might die of stunned pleasure when Michelle Easter cracks up. You go out for drinks and she repeats it’s all skinny and on the left while laughing. You could, you think, spend a large part of your energy on this planet on making Michelle Easter laugh.
Often, while you follow Michelle Easter from major to major, you are dating women who have no idea you are following Michelle Easter in her academic sampling of everything your school has to offer. You think a lot about trying to be a better person. You do very little to become a better person.
Later that year, she transfers to Journalism. Something, you are stunned to realize, you are actually good at. Except they put you on editorials pretty quickly when they find out that you are too lazy to interview people and/or too lazy to transcribe tapes OF interviews and, as a result, you make up every news story you report on.
“You can’t just make shit up,” your editor tells you.
Michelle becomes a Creative Writing major. You are finally in a room for a better reason than following Michelle Easter around. Because, really, if you’ve HAD a major in college, it has been Trying to Impress Michelle Easter, 101-401 with a minor in Kind of Attending Classes.
At the time, you would have used the word romantic to describe your attempt to win Michelle’s affections. Later, you will realize there is a more accurate word for what you were doing: stalking.
1984: You are having sex with you best friend’s mother, Donna.
For years, when you tell this story, you tell people you lost your virginity to your best friend’s mother—which, while it is the emotional truth, is only close to the factual truth. But it’s complicated. And I lost my virginity to my best friend’s mother is a quick, shorthand way to pretty much give someone the gist of how you spend your senior year.
You have a hidden affair for over six months. You make out like kids behind corners of buildings and hope no one sees. She kisses hard and aggressively, sucking your tongue with a force that makes you feel she could tear it out and swallow it. She’s the first woman to bite your nipples. The first to draw blood on your skin—the first to intentionally make you feel pain and you float with the realization that you love it. Someone else hurting you feels better, more calming, even, than when you hurt yourself.
You meet her at commuter train station parking lots and she looks over her shoulder every time a car pulls in. Her mouth tastes like Virginia Slims and Tab when you meet her after work, and like Virginia Slims and some bitter white wine later in the day. She teaches you where to touch her and how to go down on her in her bedroom after she and her husband have separated and you are, on occasion, alone in her house. She is the first woman you ever see/feel/hear orgasm. You will actually never have an orgasm with her. The closest you get is once when the two of you are alone in the house on a Saturday and she is giving you your first blowjob in the upstairs hallway when the garage door starts to open. Your best friend has come home when he’d said he’d be gone all day. You have just closed your eyes and felt lips and a tongue and teeth on your cock for the first time. You have never felt this good without being loaded. It may be even slightly better than being loaded. When she hears the garage door, Donna stops going down on you and rushes into the bathroom, as you zip up your pants and wonder what room you should race to be in when your friend gets upstairs. Standing in the hallway with an obvious hard-on seems to be the wrong place to be. You hurry toward the kitchen and your hear Donna brushing her teeth in the bathroom.
The detail sticks out and troubles you. Why brushing the teeth? You may be new to it all, but this seems a bit much. Is there, like, some dead giveaway cock smell on someone’s breath after a blowjob? Or is it only your cock that begs for a good cleaning after it’s come into contact with someone’s mouth? Is there something wrong with you? That is the only time she will ever go down on you. This will not help your fear that something might be wrong with you.
You love your friend and you feel terribly guilty about being with his mother. You also despise him for coming home in the middle of your first blowjob. You could, you realize, punch him. You’re an emotional mess. You’re in love with a woman twice your age and you are such a rube, you think that you will be together forever. You wonder how it’s going to work when your best friend is your stepson. You actually try to get your head around this and more troubling situations. You are mugged by guilt every day. You’re betraying your best friend. He is the person you would tell about this if it was anyone else’s mother. Instead, for now, you have no one to talk to and you realize for the first time that being in love is not something that makes everything all right. Sometimes everything that’s wonderful with her is shadowed with a cold feeling that you are, on some foundational level, a bad person and you deserve any sorrow that may visit you until you die.
You love—or at least think you love—Donna. But that doesn’t stop you from drinking her liquor and stealing pills out of her medicine cabinet. She takes a lot of valium. Now, you take a lot of valium. She has Percocet and you promise yourself you won’t take enough for her to notice, but you go through her whole script in a week. If she notices, she doesn’t say anything. You fall asleep a lot at school. The assistant principal takes you into his office and talks about potential that you’re not living up to and he tells you that you’re selling the sizzle and not the steak and that he needs to see more steak and less sizzle out of you and you are loaded and you wonder the fuck he is talking about.
One night, Donna takes you to a cemetery two towns over from yours. She doesn’t talk in the car—didn’t even kiss you when you got in. She stares straight ahead and you count four Virginia Slims with coral lipstick on their filters pile in the ashtray by the time she parks.
She starts up a hill and then waits for you. She takes your hand when you get to her and she starts walking uphill again. You will feel bad for this years later—feel awful that you are so clueless as to miss how serious she is—but climbing that hill the only thought in your head is that you are getting fucked in a cemetery. Great plan. Who would find you there?
She takes her hand out of yours and lights a cigarette. You feel nervous and unsure of what to do, and you light one as well.
You are standing in between some headstones and she points to the one next to you.
“That’s my brother,” she says.
It becomes clear you are, most probably…almost certainly, not going to fuck in this cemetery. Right away, though, that doesn’t seem to matter because she brought you here. Not anyone else. That has to mean something. Still, you have no idea what to say.
You say, “I’m sorry.” Your best friend has told you about the uncle he barely remembers who died in a car accident.
You both stand there for a while. She tells you that you are not allowed to tell anyone what she’s about to tell you.
“I just need someone to hear this, ok?”
She tells you there was no car accident. That her mother found him hanging in the basement ten years earlier. You only know her mother as your friend’s nice and grandmotherly grandmother. You never would have guessed that she’d dealt with shit this major. But, she’s 70. Of course she has. This and more than you can count.
Donna says, very calmly, “He killed himself.” And she walks down the hill and you look at the headstone for a minute and follow her path back to the car.
You get in and she starts driving. She says, “You know you are the only person that has heard anything about what really happened to him in ten years?”
Again—what are you supposed to say? The tires thump over construction gates and potholes and you pass the giant quarry on the right where you used to swim in the summer until some kid got run over and killed walking home from a party. The cops chained it off.
“Why?” you say. You’re not even sure now what you meant—was it: Why are you telling me this? Or, Why lie about it?”
She says, “Because, he was in a car accident.” She smiles and shakes her head. “Ask my fucking mother. Car accident.” She tosses her cigarette out the window and lights another one. When she’s done, you push the lighter back in and light one of your own, feeling the warmth from the heat coils as you breathe in.
She says, “Apparently, if you pretend something didn’t happen, then it didn’t happen.”
Things get more complicated as time moves on. To keep people from being suspicious, Donna tells you that you should probably have a girlfriend your own age. You don’t want a girlfriend. You love Donna, you are positive. This must be what love feels like, though you are not able to say the words to her. She says it would be wise to have someone your own age. People wouldn’t be suspicious.
You end up dating Kristen. Now you feel, if possible, worse. You don’t love Kristen. After two weeks together you realize you don’t even particularly like Kristen. But you feel awful that she’s just some pawn in the increasingly complex and fucked up life of yours.
When you start going out, there seems to be some unwritten rule you were unaware of that says a boyfriend drives the girlfriend to school. The first few days you drive her, she sings along with some hideous shit like Journey and Starship on the radio. This starts to drive you insane, as she sings off-key and doesn’t know a lot of the words. You start making sure there are tapes playing by the time you pick her up—think that maybe she only sings along to stuff she knows from the radio. You try Bob Dylan…Lou Reed…Jonathan Richman…Maryanne Faithfull. She sings along to all of it, though it’s clear she doesn’t know a single word to any of them. The next week, you are about to snap, so you play instrumental music—tapes by The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The Glenn Phillips Band. An experimental Glen Branca piece you don’t even like that sounds like wrecking balls and arc welding and the cries of dying animals.
She sings along to all of it.
After school, you sit at the kitchen table with Donna and your best friend. Your best friend asks you about the prom. You say you guess you’ll be taking Kristen. Donna gets a dark frown and takes her glass of wine and goes to her bedroom, slamming the door. You want to follow her and ask what’s wrong, but you can’t. You and your best friend stay at the table.
Later, when you two are alone in the laundry room, you ask her if you did something.
She seems angry at you for the first time. “I don’t need to hear about you and your fucking girlfriend,” she says.
“She was your idea.”
“Just go,” she says, waving you away with a cigarette between her lips. “Go. Go fuck your little girl with her tight little ass and her perky tits, ok?”
You stand there. You have no idea what’s happening.
She stops talking to you for ten days. You feel weak with fear you’re losing her. That she doesn’t like you anymore. One day, you are hanging out at the house (you are still there every day with your best friend—as crazy as it is, it’s better than your house) and the phone rings. No one else is around to answer it, so you figure you’ll take a message.
You say hello and a woman who mistakes you for your best friend—she calls you by his name—starts talking. “Your mother is a whore, do you know that?”
She uses your friend’s name again. “Listen to me. She’s fucking Larry and god knows who else that slut spreads her legs for. Your mother is a filthy whore.”
You hang up. Larry? Larry is a guy she works with who you’ve met. He has a 70’s porn mustache and has a horseshow balding pattern and he wears brown suits with ridiculously wide ties. The phone rings and you stupidly answer it and the woman is back, her voice a droning menace telling you your mother is a whore, your mother is a whore, your mother is a whore and you hang up again. The next time, you don’t answer.
By June, Donna totally avoids you. You get the message and stop going to her house. Which means you are stuck at your house. You feel terrible about Kristen and break up with her and feel mildly relieved when she doesn’t seem to care much and is quickly dating some other guy and no doubt singing along to whatever the fuck music is in his pickup truck every morning.
1988: It takes you four years to get the courage to go back to Donna’s house. To try to set things right. It was a fucked up relationship, but you are beginning to see that just about everyone you know is a royal mess. Why should she have been the exception just because she was twice your age?
You call first and ask if she’s alone and if you can come over and she quietly says yes to both questions, after considering them for an uncomfortably long time.
It’s freezing. You knock and it’s so cold your knuckles hurt. After a minute or so, she opens the door, but stands in the way.
She sounds young—more than you ever would have remembered—when she says a quiet, shy sounding, “Hi.”
“Hey,” you say. “Can I come in?”
She looks down and seems to step out of the way. You open the screen door and before you realize what has happened, a torn metal screen is caught in your sweater—which is actually your roommate Ed’s sweater that he doesn’t know you borrowed for the weekend. You want to scream…you’d hoped to play this like an older, more mature version of you who could sit with Donna and you could talk like two adults and have this end on the right note. Instead, you feel like an idiot stuck in her door.
While you are cursing her screen, she turns around. She looks at you—and it will bother you forever, even though you know it does not matter, that her last vision of you is being stuck in her screen door on her front porch. So much for the older, more mature you sitting and talking. You feel like you could break down on the porch and you look away from her eyes because you think you’re crying.
She says, “I can’t talk to you,” and closes the door. You are still awkwardly stuck in her screen door as you hear her walk upstairs toward what you know is her bedroom. The lights go out, including the porch light. You finally pull yourself free from the fucking door and you start to walk away, realizing that now you didn’t happen, either.