The summer of 2012 was my worst summer.
Let me preface that by saying that the details aren’t very mind-blowing. Nothing impressively terrible occurred. But the only way I could feel somewhat okay was when I was listening to the Front Bottoms’ self-titled album.
I spent the summer working at a residential camp for rich kids in Massachusetts. I had just finished my third year teaching, and I had a house back in Virginia that I shared with roommates. There was a guy who I had been dating since college, for almost four years. I knew I was supposed to be entering a phase of next steps, but it felt like we were spinning our wheels.
To complicate matters further, I had fallen in love with my roommate from home. My boyfriend and I had this big, incestuous, wonderful group of friends. I’ve always been a bit of an oddball, and for the first time, I felt like I’d found my people. But I knew that if I broke up with him, our friends would disown me.
It was my roommate that I spent my last day with. We walked around our suburban neighborhood for hours, looking for geocaches and talking. I felt tentatively ecstatic when I spent time with him, like I knew that this was a type of happy that I deserved to be, but that in order for it to be real, I’d have to destroy everything I’d worked almost four years to build. And even if I did, wasn’t there a chance that the way I felt had a false sheen created by its forbiddenness? Couldn’t the tablecloth still be pulled out from underneath me?
Before I left, my boyfriend had actually been the one to show me the Front Bottoms. It was strange that he showed me something so significant. I felt so emotionally distant from him, but I had taken up so much of his life that the only thing left to do was stay.
Please fall asleep so I can take pictures of you and hang them in my room
So when I wake up I’ll be like yeah everything’s alright
When I first heard Brian Sella’s sweet, pathetic voice sing these words, they seared a sense of guilt into me. They sounded like the words of someone mourning the loss of a long-term relationship. But in this case, the mourning acted as a warning, before the fact. Don’t do this to him, I thought. You, like the female protagonist of this song, are about to get into the business of life ruining.
I hoped a summer away would help me clear my head, but it did not. As soon as the camp started, I realized that it wasn’t a camp where I’d have time to soul-search and enjoy nature. The camp was like a culty, fun overload for overachievers. Every other day, we worked from seven in the morning to eleven at night with a one-hour break. On our nights “off,” we worked from seven to six. In a seven-week summer, we got four days off.
Beyond that, the camp directors stressed that attitudes were contagious, and we learned a theme song that ended with an arm movement and a chant: “I love my job! I love my job!” Whenever we saw someone who was having a rough day, we were supposed to do that little arm movement at them.
For some, it was the most fun place on earth, but all of the cute, clever events we were creating for these kids were just making me sink into a deeper depression. There are few things as existentially horrible as making a funny chant about the blue juice you were serving while asking yourself over and over: Am I a terrible person?
Around the time that I realized working at the camp wasn’t going to be fun at all, my roommate was on a trip to Vermont with his friends. I remember working a streak of long days where I was forced to smile all day and then logging onto Facebook. I saw a picture of him viking-chugging a beer in a waterfall with his friends, looking happier now that I had exited the equation.
I bought fireworks, a big bag in Pennsylvania
I’m gonna light ‘em up when I get home to Jersey
They’ll probably arrest me
They’ll probably ruin my whole summer
Stop taking pictures with your phone
It was the Front Bottoms’ self-destructive, fuck-it-all attitude that made them the perfect band to listen to during this time. On my nights “off,” I’d grab my iPod and go running around the well-manicured lawns of the estates nearby, where there were no sidewalks. I’d have to duck out of the way of oncoming cars, and I’d feel my heartbeat in my ears in time with Mat Uychich’s manic drumming.
I hope I fall asleep at the wheel and crash my car
Or I could just stay here
Some days, I convinced myself that I was eager to get back to my old life, to have a chance to go through the method acting of being a good girlfriend until I finally got it right. Maybe I could kick my roommate out and move my boyfriend in and we could get a dog and eventually he’d love me enough to ask me to marry him. Maybe I was unhappy because I thought too much. Maybe I could just act like some of the simpler people at my camp who were happily together, and as Sella would sing two albums later, “delusional in love.”
But then there were days where I knew that the path to happiness was going to be rougher than going through the motions. I couldn’t deny that sometimes the things that made me happy were the reasons that my boyfriend couldn’t commit.
And I am permanently preoccupied with your past
I’ve been around long enough now to know that the good things never last, they never last
On my last day off, my ex asked me to hang out in Boston. He was interested in men now, which was a development that had happened as we were breaking up and just a few months before I’d met my boyfriend. Any feelings between us were purely nostalgic.
I knew that my boyfriend had never liked my ex, and had always been purely distrustful of my attempt to maintain a friendship with him. In college, when I had gotten dinner with him, I came back to a trashed boyfriend and a coffee table littered with empty cans of alcoholic energy drinks.
At the time, I didn’t think I was doing something blatantly wrong by hanging out with my ex. He was, after all, not interested in women anymore. I was feeling incredibly lonely and worthless and felt the need to spend time with someone familiar. All of his friends got together for a beer-fueled wiffleball tournament, and it ended up being a really fun day.
I’d told my boyfriend ahead of time that I was doing this, and he said he was fine with it. But between my roommate and my ex and even some of our friends, he’d been making snide comments that indicated that he didn’t trust me with anyone male, even if they were gay.
On the phone, he was being really short with me and I finally told him that I thought he must not have been okay with me seeing my ex.
“No really, you think?” he said. I looked around the campus and felt embarrassed. I had so little free time, and I was spending an hour on the phone with him every night. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t figure out how to be a decent girlfriend? Everyone else seemed so happy. Why was I seeking affection from my roommate? And why couldn’t I be a normal person who never spoke to their ex?
Towards the end of “Swimming Pool,” there’s a recording of a voicemail of an angry older man repeating, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” set to a catchy guitar riff. There’s more than anger in his voice—it’s pure bewilderment. Much later, I found out from an interview that this was taken from a friend of Sella’s, whose dad called ranting and raving about something inconsequential. But at the time, it felt like my boyfriend and the universe were demanding to know the answer to that question over and over again.
Listening to the Front Bottoms’ first album is like the moment in mid-air as you jump into a lake, alone, in the middle of the night. It’s the moment of clarity before you feel what you’re supposed to feel.
The last lines of “Flashlight” splashed around me that summer, cresting into a calm reminder that I was still a person, that my feelings were valid, that I could be singing the hilarious song about blue juice while instructing myself not to cry:
When I am sad, oh god I’m sad
But when I’m happy, I am happy
And there’s just no place in between for us to meet.