Give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals.
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale
On our way out of the Roseland, we are pushing through the crowd to get to the exit and dancing to the post-show music. This is one of my favorite things about concerts: hearing people sing together. I worship even those moments before the opener comes on, when some playlist of alt-rock hits asserts its comforting familiarity over the speakers and everyone latches on to a particular song. It’s always something like Wish you could step off of that ledge my friend or I’m gonna fight em all or If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away. Dear Portland chorus: I love you, I swear. All of that simultaneous joy makes my heart lurch with a kind of productive, forward-moving energy, like I’ve had too much coffee. It feels like relief and like waiting for something. I can’t describe its holiness like Hanif Abdurraqib but I know that it’s very much like waiting for something.
In fact, it occurs to me that in these United States, the sheer variety of religious and spiritual affiliation is such that in the event of an apocalypse, we wouldn’t say the Lord’s prayer together like they do in the movies. If, during those final moments, we truly wanted to be in communion with one another, we would sing the words to a song we all love as the asteroid careens toward the Earth.
One night, at a bar in Granada, I was feeling out of place among so many silk blouses and six inch high heels, among a sea of dancers repeating the same elegant salsa step over and over again, when “Mr. Brightside” came on and all of the Americans started singing with so little hesitation and such perfect synchronicity that I almost cried. I loved their laughing eyes and their wild gestures, how they clutched their chests when they sang, I just can’t look, it’s killing me. The well-dressed Spanish folks smoked their cigarettes and giggled at us, at the people who were my family for 3 minutes and 42 seconds. I’m surprised to find that I’m not actually ashamed of the sentimentality of all this. Probably because it, too, was near perfect to me.
A few years ago, I watched a video of the rapper Post Malone– who I admittedly find off-putting in a number of ways– singing “I Fall Apart” to a smallish crowd in a bar for some kind of collaborative tour with Budweiser. The song is about a devastating breakup in his younger years. In the video, by way of introduction, he says, This song is dedicated to the nasty girl who broke my heart. One grim detail: I’ve heard versions of this song where the audience starts chanting “Fuck that bitch” over and over again before he starts singing, which I gather is some sort of fan tradition acknowledging the degree of suffering expressed in the lyrics; there are echoes of that chanting here, too. Though the aggressive misogyny of the words is unsettling, I find myself drawn to the audience members as they sing along. Though some are smiling, lifting their hands like any headdress-wearing sorority girl at Coachella, a few look quite different. Their faces are solemn and strained, almost religious with empathy and torment. When I watch the most passionate of these singers, it’s like I can see them reckon with a specific heartbreak as they mouth the words, the residue of a heavy and perennial anger.
This is the last one, and then I’ll be quiet: Talib Kweli’s Blackstar reunion tour in Portland. A night crisp as printer paper. When Talib sang “Just to Get By” and everyone sang “Just to Get By.”
This morning I woke up, feeling brand new. I jumped up. Feeling my highs and my lows. In my soul and my goals. Just to stop smoking and stop drinking. And I’ve been thinking, I’ve got my reasons…
I don’t mean to collapse our identities, our unique experiences, when I say that we all sounded the same that night. I just mean to say that I could hear the choke of a sob in nearly every one’s throat.
As Lucas and I continue pushing toward the back of the venue, I turn my camera toward him and hit record. Though I feel superficial for pulling out my phone so quickly, I swear to myself that I need the footage for later, for my hoard, for when I’m alone in my bed in the dark and I need to remember that I was once vital and breathing.
When Lucas turns to me and sees the camera, his eyes widen and his face opens up. I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her, he shouts along with the crowd, moving his hips in a little circle. Right over here. Why can’t you see me?
Three years later, I drive to Portland with E., who I’ve just started dating, to meet Lucas at a show. I haven’t seen him in a long time.
He is much thinner, so tiny as to be almost childlike, an image magnified by the fact that he’s wearing an undersized t-shirt and a small plastic backpack. His eyes are ringed in thick black liner, making them appear even more sunken. He looks unhealthy and unfed, like the sun has leaked right out of him. His hair, once the color of black tourmaline, is now a stark white-blond, a shade close to the color of his skin. This contributes to my sense that all the pigment has drained from his body.
We smile and hug. I wrap my arms around his grass blade of a waist. I squeeze him once. Twice. He nuzzles my temple like a horse and I laugh. We make small talk, and his eyes keep darting toward the door as I speak, lamely describing my graduate program, my first year of teaching. It’s clear that he’s not focused on anything I’m saying. He bounces up and down in his seat.
When it’s his turn, Lucas says he’s in between jobs and living situations. He shrugs. He has a new boyfriend and I pretend I don’t know this already from social media. He keeps tapping his fingernails on the bar. They are painted black and chipping. He reminds me of some old mechanical toy. His neck on a swivel. His body shaking like a drummer boy’s. His fingers tap tap tap tap tap.
Well, he says, after less than ten minutes, sighing loudly and stretching as if he has completed some great herculean task. I’m sorry, baby girl. I know you drove all this way. But I can’t actually stay for the show.
Oh, I say. Why? But he is evasive, and makes an excuse about needing to help a friend with something. I’ve been here before. I’m intimate with the sounds that a mouth makes as it forms a lie, especially one made to obscure the shape of a small and shameful thing.
We hug again. This time to say goodbye, I guess. As I wrap my fingers around his shoulders, I think his thin arms and clammy skin might be trying to say something to me, but I don’t really want to listen. I’m afraid that along with saying that he’s changed, they are also telling me that I don’t fit among the changes. And I’m just not ready to grieve that yet.
Selfish as ever, I play the filmic montage of our friendship in my head as I push the bar door open and head out to the car. I hate how I do this. It’s so cloyingly predictable, but like most of my vices, it feels more compulsive than anything else.
So we’re eating grilled cheese in the cafeteria in college. His face is bent over lines of chemical symbols; my face is bent over Beloved. He’s dancing with silly, jerking movements to a Major Lazer song in a living room lit by Christmas lights. Don’t tell them I’m like this on the internet! He shouts, and points at me from across the room. I raise my palms, laughing. I promise. He’s dragging an Ikea mattress through the door of my garage apartment, the one coated in dust and black mold. Bitch! he says, wiping sweat off his forehead, I was not built for this!
I should clarify something: I have never, before this night, longed for a man I did not desire. But I can’t describe what I felt like as anything but longing.
I’m always reading things online about how much more beautiful and complex the phrase “I miss you” sounds in other languages. Tu me manques. You are missing to me. I suppose this is true. But this feeling was nothing like a lack. Instead, it was more like extrañar. In Spanish, extrañar means to miss, but it’s also a relative of the word extraño, or strange. And this is just how I felt. I miss you. I’m estranged from you. To me, you’ve become strange.
In my junior year of college, Sasha told me that she found it hard to be around me because I had changed since freshman year.
One bright Saturday, my housemates and I hosted Boozy Brunch, an annual tradition, at the small gray house on Princeton St. We got dressed up and made mimosas and Irish whiskeys and waffles with burnt edges and my housemates didn’t really like me but they pulled me outside for photos anyway. I couldn’t find the shoes that went with my silver sequined party dress, and I couldn’t be bothered to look for them, so I yanked on my rain boots and clip-clopped outside like a sparkling Quarter Horse. That whole time, I was supposed to be writing a paper on speech acts in Troilus and Criseyde, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was just too angry. And what I mean by angry is that I was graduating college a year early in a handful of months, and I felt nothing. I already suspected that I had set myself up for a life of scrapping together a meager income, probably mostly from retail, and who would care about Chaucer and Ferdinand de Saussure then? What good would The Awakening do except to give me instructions for dying? I was forcing myself to fall out of love with all of it then, and the only way I could expel the bitterness that increasingly lived on my tongue was through a vaguely cynical flatness. Through long nights waiting in line at the North Lombard Taco Bell and finally getting everything I wanted. And I was still lonely.
Which meant, of course, that if I had changed, it was hardly monumental. I still got bronchitis in the springtime. Still fielded jokes at parties about my black tights and ballet shoes. Still blushed when Elliott Myers asked if I wanted to do coke with him in the garage. Still walked home from class listening to Mahler and wondering just what about life I seemed to be getting so wrong.
As I tripped on the porch steps on my way to the front yard, late already–and mostly intentionally–for the first few pictures in the yard, I considered Sasha’s words more deeply, and considered that she may have been right. But in the blunt orange of the afternoon, forcing my lips to part into a smile, I decided quite firmly and irrevocably that I was not. I’m only coping, I thought, no, reacting to what I had been given. What the world looked like around me and what I thought it looked like ahead.
I wondered then, as I sometimes do now, if when we think we are getting closer to ourselves, we are really just finding a new way to survive. A temporary one, even, that has much less to do with identity than adaptation. Sasha was smart. Why didn’t she see all that? Wasn’t it obvious to anyone who met my eyes?
A few weeks ago I came across the Jewish story of Zusha, a revered Hasidic master, on Facebook. The wording is different everywhere I look at the story online, but most versions go something like this: Zusha is crying on his deathbed, and his students ask him why. After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!
Because I am afraid, Zusha explains, Because when I get to heaven, I know God’s not going to ask me “Why weren’t you more like Moses?” or “Why weren’t you more like King David?” But I’m afraid that God will ask “Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha? And then what will I say?!”
Isn’t it funny how you’re different now can be an act of praising, an acknowledgment of some kind of personal growth, but you’ve changed is almost always an accusation?
But then again, I should be wary of what I say here. There are dangers in giving directions to others as they stumble on the paths toward themselves.
By the time E. has slid into the driver’s side and shut the door my eyes are already welling.
Well, fuck. E. says.
Yeah, I whisper. I know. And though I’m normally the type to speak my pain aloud, I don’t say much more for the rest of the ride. Instead, slightly drunk and still damp from the rain, I try to identify each bridge we pass by in the city. I used to think that their shapes were so distinctive, but now I can’t remember a single one of their names.