Annie Lennox’s Bare album dropped the year before I graduated college. It was 2003. The US and UK were bombing the shit out of Iraq and Madonna had french-kissed Britney Spears at the Video Music Awards. Or so I’d been told. I hadn’t actually seen a news report, read a paper, or picked up a magazine in months. Much like Annie Lennox, I’d been hiding from the public eye for quite some time. Occasionally I made public appearances to drink at a bar, but mostly I kept to myself, writing in my studio apartment, drinking copious amounts of beer, and smoking cigarettes—all past-time activities I suspected Annie didn’t partake of. Not with the same regularity as I did, at least. And not alone.
I think it was my friend Megan who first told me Annie Lennox had released a new album. And that it had actually been out for a few months. Like me, Megan was an English major with a focus in creative writing. Like me, she rarely attended class unless it happened to be Jill Christman’s 300-level “creative nonfiction”—a class we both loved. And like me, Megan firmly believed that life in the immediate aftermath of college was probably going to come close to killing us. We talked about that a lot.
I was nervous to learn about Annie’s new album. Megan and I had just gotten out of class when she told me; We were sitting in her silver car, about to head out of the university parking lot strictly reserved for professors only. I hadn’t listened to Annie much in recent years. Her music reminded me of being an angry teenager too much.
“God, how old is she now?” I wondered aloud, yanking at the seat belt to buckle myself in before thinking better of it and letting go.
Megan shrugged and brushed aside her dyed-black bangs that hung jagged and slick across her forehead like a petulant array of icicles.
“At least fifty,” she said. Which, to us, was old.
I supposed I was nervous because, on some level, I suspected Annie’s music wouldn’t be good anymore. She was older now. Old. How far could she ride out her musical career until she made a fool of herself and became redundant?
I needed to know for sure. “Let’s go to BestBuy,” I said.
I wasn’t proud of my ageist judgmentalism. I knew it was stupid to think that way but, like the rest of my friends, I was deeply afraid of growing older. So I openly criticized thirty-year-olds who had the audacity to be out at a bar typically frequented by college kids. Hence the reason for the term “college kid.”
I knew my creative nonfiction professor, Jill, was in her thirties. She had already published her first memoir Darkroom and it won the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. I figured she was happy now with that notch under her belt. Happy enough to live to see her mid-thirties, at least, and see what else life might have to offer.
Megan and I went to Best Buy. My heart lurched when I saw the cover of Annie’s new album. There she was, staring gravely back at me, her hair was cropped, her eyes were as magnetic as ever, but her still-sumptuous lips—frozen in a weak purse—were surrounded by distinct fissures in the skin of her face.
“Oh my God,” I said, holding the album up closer to my own face. I mimicked Annie’s facial expression and pursed my lips back at her.
“She’s definitely fifty,” Megan said, laughing. “She looks mummified.”
Megan was right. Annie did look mummified. I wanted to cry.
I used to stare at the skin of my own face in the mirror before I met with Jill on Friday mornings to go over whatever piece I was working on for her class. I never got up before eleven unless it was to meet with Jill. And I was always hungover. Still, I didn’t want to look it. So I’d stare at my face for signs that would give away my subpar state of wakefulness—dark circles under my eyes, cracked lips, an obvious bruise or two.
Once I dragged my way into Jill’s office, we’d talk about class and then sometimes about things other than writing. One morning we broached the topic of what I was planning to do after college. Jill said I should definitely work for a while before going to grad school. I suspected she didn’t think I was MFA material.
“I’m going to work in a mental hospital,” I declared, leaning back in the chair that sat next to her desk. My head hurt. My eyes burned. I hoped she couldn’t tell.
Jill looked up at me professorially, making eye contact over the rims of her glasses. She cocked an eyebrow, which made me laugh. Even though I knew Jill was in her thirties, she seemed ageless to me. I wasn’t sure what “thirty-something” was supposed to look like anyway. She was pretty in an older-sister way, with long brown hair that always looked recently brushed. Sometimes she had a tan, sometimes she didn’t. And she was tall. Really tall. I felt like a hedge bush whenever I stood near her.
“Are you going to work in a mental hospital as some kind of penance?” she asked.
I sat upright in my chair again. “What do you mean?”
“For the way you behave outside of school,” she said. One corner of her mouth edged upwards. Was she smirking? Was that a joke?
I couldn’t tell. I was afraid to ask. The last thing I wanted to hear were her assumptions on how I lived my life.
I gingerly popped open the jewel case to Bare, pulled the cover booklet out, and skimmed the liner notes. One sentence jumped out at me: “I am a mature woman facing up to the failed expectations of life.”
Oh, Annie, I thought, opening a can of beer. We’re going to be okay. Aren’t we?
The first song “A Thousand Beautiful Things” trickled from the boombox speakers in plucky, digitized minor chords, which made me think briefly of flowers in slow motion, blossoming and bending. But that image was too hopeful.
Annie’s voice emerged almost right away, singing quick lyrics over the surface of the chords. I dropped my jaw open as if trying to pop my eardrums. Doing so prevented me from clearly understanding the words. I just wanted to hear the music. I just wanted to hear Annie’s voice.
And here it was—back in my life again. That familiar deep contralto beckoning me to listen to her sad and sung story of heartbreak. Before my first beer was halfway finished, I got up to grab a second and third. Then I sat down in bed, my mouth dropped open unless I needed a sip or two.
The songs blended together. “A Thousand Beautiful Things” melted into “Pavement Cracks” which fused right into “The Hurting Time.” All pop tunes with slow starts but powerful anthemic bridges and choruses that burst open before wilting back into somber melodies.
She’s depressed, I thought, sipping on my fourth beer. Briefly, my mind wandered back to Jill’s suggestion that my choice to work in a mental hospital after college was some kind of subconscious penance for my own behavior. I scoffed.
Then the song “Honestly” came on, emerging like the others as an adjacent tune to the one before. But it was a bit more upbeat. An acoustic guitar arpeggioed briskly over a soft beat—a tapped high-hat, maybe. Its buoyant tempo distracted me from dropping my jaw to mute the lyrics.
“Alone in my bed,” Annie sang. “The things that you said. Go ‘round in my head… still.”
It wasn’t like I didn’t know I drank too much. I was well aware that drinking alone at the age of twenty-three every night was probably a clear indicator of a problem. But we all have problems, I reasoned. At least I wasn’t some lost kid overseas looking for weapons of mass destruction just to finance my way through school later on. At least I wasn’t a thirty-something professor who’d apparently stopped trying to outdo her own early success. At least I wasn’t a fifty-something pop singer facing up to the failed expectations of her life.
I was young. Besides, I didn’t plan on staying this way for long anyhow.