The landscape was bleak, suburban. It was a post-Cobain world. For Frances and me, Cobain was the original 9/11. His death taught us to love and to yearn. After that, nothing was quite the same. He died in April and by June I'd become a different person. I was racked with grief and longing, scouring the back issues of Rolling Stone, rereading old interviews for clues. For signs. Totems. I'd bring them to Frances and she would share hers in return.
“He wore a brooch on his maroon caridgan when he said his favorite class in school was lunch," she told me.
“He wrote Fugazi on his Jack Purcells," I told her.
“What are Jack Purcells?" she asked me.
“What's Fugazi?" I asked her.
Somewhere in there, I'd fallen in love with Frances. At least, as much as a thirteen year old can. I mean, she was all I'd ever wanted in a girl. She liked to skate and wasn't scared to fall and had the knees to prove it. And although her face was covered in zits, I could see the pretty girl there, down beneath the whiteheads, behind the long greasy bangs. And then her boobs and hips turned round and our horseplay wasn't so innocent anymore. Her new soft touch left me confused and speechless, not like she ever noticed.
Back then, she and I were still best friends. This was before we started hanging out with the punk kids in our high school. Before we got to high school. Before she cut her hair short and started dating Dylan. This was back when we still had little access. When we were still middle-school brats and, between us, had only a few artifacts. The Rolling Stone articles and Azerrad's book, which was full of clues. The Mazzy Star and Vaselines tapes. And of course we had our Nirvana CDs. Even had a few bootlegs. She had Outcesticide Volume 1 and I had Volume 2 and we'd trade these back and forth between us weekly. We also had a copy of the “Lithium" single, which had the lyrics to Nevermind in it. This was very important.
“He wore a map jacket when he said we want a path straight to the van," she told me.
“He collected antique dolls' heads and anatomical charts," I told her.
“And turtle shells."
“And he loved lilies."
And so Fran and I would skateboard and mourn Kurt and carve his name into tabletops in the science classrooms, using paperclips to gouge away gray into the acid-resistant black. Into any surface that had layers. Digging down through the UPS brown of our lockers. KURT in medicinal green, down to clinical steel. Into our arms. Etcetera. We both hung up shrines in our lockers, pictures cut out from Hit Parader and Circus and Spin, from mags that weren't worth reading, hung them up Scotch-taped together, layer matted upon layer, every image with his beautiful eyes, dead, conveying a message back to us through time.
“He once said that they sounded like The Kinks and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath," she said, reading from her notes.
“The Bay City Rollers suck, right?"
“Yeah, I think so."
We started to do research. We combed and we cribbed. Scanned the liner notes, David Fricke articles, Greil Marcus essays. Lester Bangs. Studied a new language, learned to follow up clues. We did paper research. Scanned thank-you lists of records to find new bands. Tried to source the originals that Nirvana covered. Wondered who The Wipers might be and how we could hear them. Wondered about The Meat Puppets. We did the legwork. Took the bus to the mall to scour the clearance bins at Tower, looking for labels we recognized. Sub Pop, SST, Touch & Go, K. Records, and Caroline. Held the CDs in our hands and looked at the covers. We wondered, hesitant to shell out. Later, we skated to Slipped Disc, checked out the vinyl firsthand. Checked out the platters, the 7"s, the 45s. Comps. Gatefolds. Flexies. Picture discs. But neither of us had a record player then, so we settled for some dusty Sonic Youth tapes. Bad Moon Rising and EVOL.
Back in her room, we put one on, but it sounded meek. Under-produced. Watery.
“You think the tape is damaged?" I asked her.
“I don't know," she said.
We stared at the spinning spools. We stared at the tape cover, unfurled in our hands. We stared at the black and white girl with the messed up bangs, gnashing her teeth. We weren't ready.
We had no mentors then. Frances and I were the only ones in our school. We still hadn't made contact with the others. We'd see them from afar, at the mall, but it was the shy type of acknowledgement. Abrupt, almost rude. That shit's awesome or that shit sucks, in passing. Maybe cool shirt, nothing more. But that was fine by me. Those were the years when crushes were still crushing, and I was happy to be left alone with her. I figured we had each other, and we had Kurt and that soon enough I'd think of a way to tell her how I felt and that, naturally, she'd feel the same.
And then there was high school.
There, we met other punks. They were way more punk than we were. They smoked weed and drove into the city on weekends, to catch matinees at ABC No Rio, see bands at CB's, at C-Squat. Fran and I would approach them for cigarettes, back behind the high school and they'd bum them out as often as not, all the while spitting out the names of mythic groups, of fallen legends, Darby Crash and Peter Laughner and D. Boon. The punks kept their eyes on the horizon, as if they were speaking to them and not to us.
“What are you listening to?" I asked, pointing to the boombox at their feet.
“Wait. Flipper's a band?" I asked.
“What'd you think they were, numbnuts?"
Until then, I'd thought Flipper was just some shit that Kurt'd written on his shirt. Nothing more.
These kids were seniors and they had access. To cigarettes and shit we could barely fathom. These guys had the late era Black Flag records. The Big Black LPs. The hard stuff.
“What are you listening to?" Frances asked.
“That's Fugazi?" I asked.
“What kinda name is that anyway?" Frances asked.
“It's a Vietnam thing," one of them said. “Kinda like FUBAR." He seemed to be their leader, commanding a cool that was years beyond him. He had long greasy hair and wore a t-shirt that had a picture of a cop with a gun stuck in his mouth. It said, make me come, faggot. He spoke to both of us, but looked only at Frances. He said his name was Dylan. He ejected the tap and handed it to her. “Here," he said. “You should borrow this."
From that day on, Dylan started passing tapes on to us, to Frances. The Germs. The Stooges. The Minutemen. And she and I would get together at her house and make mixtapes out of them.
“Let's put Margin Walker' first."
“We put that one first last time," I said.
“Yeah, but it's such a good song."
“Yeah, it's all right," I said. You only like it ‘cuz it's the first one he gave you, I thought. I thought, but didn't say. I cued it up and hit record.
“Do you think Dylan thinks my bangs are stupid?"
“I don't know," I said. “How do I know what he thinks?"
“But you're a guy," she said. “Don't all guys think alike?"
“I don't know how guys think."
“So you think I should cut them?" She was sitting in front of her mirror, playing with them, putting them up, pinning them back.
“I think you should leave them."
“You're right," she said, nodded to herself. “I'll cut them."
“I said leave them."
“Or maybe I should grow them out?"
I let it go. Sometimes girls are so stupid. I kept sifting through the tapes.
“Let's put ‘Sugar Kane' next."
“No," she said. “‘Sex Bomb.'"
“Don't you know anything about flow? About sequencing?" I said. “‘Sex Bomb's' too long to be the second track. It's a side-ender."
“Fine," she said, tilted her head back in frustration. “Just put ‘Drain You.'"
It was our favorite Nevermind track. I took it as a small victory. She was busy looking at her hair in the mirror.
Frances got her license before I did and her dad bought her a little mocha-colored Civic. The thing was a size up from a go-kart, but it had a tape deck and could take us places. We mostly just drove around, listening to the mixtapes we made.
“You know this was Kurt's brand," I said, holding up the Winston Lights.
“Not true," she said. “He liked Camels."
“Wrong again, my friend," I said. “It's in Azerrad. You haven't been keeping up your notes." We were driving down Hempstead Turnpike, making circles.
But then it was wintertime and I'd started growing my hair out and stopped bathing and bought a leather jacket at the Salvation Army. It was a brown bomber and paled in comparison to Dylan's black motorcycle one. Frances said it was cool, but I could tell by her eyes that she didn't like it much.
“Want to drop by Witches' Brew?" she said. “See if anyone's around?" I knew she could only be thinking of one person.
Witches' Brew was the only freak-friendly coffee shop for miles around and Dylan and his friends were always there. I think they were buying weed off the counter people. They hinted at it, but I was never told for sure. Either way, I didn't want to go. I knew Frances would spend the night fawning over him and I'd end up playing little brother to the goth chicks from two towns over.
“Yeah, I guess so," I said and Frances stepped on the gas.
Sure enough, Dylan was there, red-eyed on the couch, nose buried in Thrasher. He grunted a hello and Frances giggled, sat down next to him. I got whisked away by the goths, got stuck watching them draw pictures of bats in their sketchpads, got stuck watching Dylan and Frances across the room. I strained to hear what they said, but it just looked like hesitant whispers, little smiles. Around me, the goth girls chattered.
“I heard Ian Curtis stood on a block of ice when he hung himself."
“I heard he carved a smile into his face with a butcher knife."
“I wanna fuck on his grave someday."
“I wanna slit my wrists on his grave someday."
I took many trips to the bathroom, walking close past Dylan and Frances, but neither noticed. Neither asked me to sit down. Eventually it got late and I got bored and I suddenly wanted out. Being alone seemed like a good idea. I asked Frances to come outside.
“Listen," I said. “Can you drive me home? I promised Mom I'd be home."
“Ughh, Peter, why do you have to be such a baby?" she raised her voice. Dylan's friends were outside and I thought I could hear them laughing.
“Why do you have to be such a bitch?"
“You heard me," I said. “You're being a total bitch right now."
“Why don't you walk home, you fucking spaz." She said it and we both stood there looking at each other. Then something in her face changed, something clouded over, and she went back inside. I could see her through the window sit down next to Dylan, I could see her talking fast, see her pointing outside in my direction. Both of them were laughing.
I came into school the next day all set to be pissed, all set to ignore her. But she was ignoring me. When I saw her in the hall, I got set to reject her apology and my heart sank when she walked past without looking at me. After school, I went to the parking lot. She and Dylan were already there, sitting on the hood of her car. I approached one of the outliers and asked for a smoke.
“Don't got one," he said. “Bummed this off Dylan."
I looked over but she and him were leaning in close, talking like the rest of us didn't exist, and I couldn't find it in me to go ask.
“Thanks anyway," I said.
I did the best I could to save face and I made friends with the outliers. I figured it I couldn't be with Frances, I'd at least stick close by. Watch her and Dylan from afar. Torture myself.
And it's not like I had any other place to go. These were my people, for better or worse, and now at least I had rides to shows.
Frances would be there also, on the opposite side of the room, her greasy head sticking out of a military coat a few sizes too large. She always found ways to perch untouchably, on top of PA cabinets or off behind the band while they played. As if she had some sixth sense and always managed to be as far away from me as possible. Or she used Dylan's presence as a buffer.
One night, I made a plan to win her back. I would make a mixtape. The goth girls from two towns over were throwing a house party that night and I decided I would go and give Frances the mixtape and it would show her how I felt and she would listen to it and remember how much I meant to her and she would come back and maybe be my girlfriend.
I sat down and unwrapped a fresh tape and made up a list of songs. “Touch Me I'm Sick" and “Greatest Gift" and “What We Do Is Secret." I sequenced them, found the crucial side-enders, starters, slow songs. And then I realized that every song on my list was one of Dylan's. All the songs I now knew were Dylan hand-me-downs and they'd probably just cement his coolness in her mind all the more. I threw his cassettes against the wall.
I decided to go back to basics. I pulled out Nevermind. I pulled out Mazzy Star. I decided to try something I'd only heard about in theory. Tape splicing, radical edits.
I dubbed a Mazzy Star track on side A. Then I pulled the tape out of the stereo and took it apart. Unscrewed the tiny screws, cut the tape, unspooled the blank forty minutes off the left-hand reel. I went to my typewriter and typed: “I want to hold the hand inside you, I want to take a breath that's true." I typed: “One baby to another says I'm lucky to have met you." I pulled the opaque liner out of the cassette case and taped those words on the inside. I put the tape back together and dubbed “Drain You" on side B. It was a two-song mixtape, nine minutes in length. I found pictures of lilies and turtle shells and made a collage and put the In Utero angel on top of them and I made a cover and I squared off the edges and neatly fit it into the case.
By the time I finished the tape, it was already ten o'clock. I grabbed my skateboard and skated the two towns over to the party. It was at the parents' house of one of the goth girls, who, it turns out, were actually pretty cool. They liked The Misfits and they were cute and they blushed like punk girls.
I walked in through the back door into the kitchen. It was brightly lit and there were a few cases of Keystone on the kitchen table, a few jugs of liquor standing around, Popov, Ancient Age, some capless two liters. The outliers were already there, smoking cigs and ashing into the sink. I swigged one of the jugs and grabbed a beer and went down to the basement. It felt like a music video, only not as good. The girls less pouty, more precious. The boys mostly tight-lipped from fear. The goths played “Age of Consent" on the stereo.
I saw Frances over on the couch, watching some kids play video games. Dylan wasn't around and I beelined. Normally I would've thought about it, cowered a bit, but I felt like I had something special that night.
“Hey," I said. “What's up?"
“Hey," she said. “Nothing."
“I made you this." I pulled the tape out of my pocket and passed it to her.
She gave it a token glance and filed it away in her coat. “Cool," was all she said.
“You okay? You seem bummed or something."
“Yeah, I'm just a little emotional," she said. “Dylan's upstairs with one of the goths."
“Oh. That sucks."
“Yeah," she said and looked around the room. “Listen, I'll be back. I need another beer."
But she didn't come back.
I drank some beer and smoked a joint with some kids in the basement and took my turn picking out songs for the stereo. The party went on and the party thinned out as the kids paired off to makeout. Every time I heard someone walking down the stairs, I'd turn around hoping I'd see her shoes descending the stairs. But I was too stubborn to go looking for her. I stayed in the basement getting more and more pissed.
Later, I had to go to the bathroom. I lurched up the stairs, trying to make it there before I piked on the floor. Halfway up, I caught sight of my tape lying on the floor, case cracked from being stepped on. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, wondered why girls have to be so stupid. Wondered how Frances could be such a bitch. I crashed through the bathroom door and dropped to my knees by the toilet. Heaved and felt the sweat come out on my brow.
Rolled over on my back and admired the tile work, the size of the place. It was an older house and this bathroom looked like something out of the Jazz Age. I felt honored to be there.
I noticed a shoe sticking out of the tub. It was one of Franny's Chucks. I crawled over and there she was, passed out, one hand still holding a beer. Her cigarette had burned a hole in the leg of her jeans.
I tried to shake her awake. “Frances. Wake up," I said, but her body just jiggled a little. I put my hand to her cheek and it was warm and I figured she'd probably be okay. Then I leaned over the edge of the tub and kissed her on the lips and they gave way against mine with no resistance. I tried to stick my tongue in but I was met with teeth and so I licked her teeth and they tasted like vomit.
Then I touched her breast. I touched her breast through her clothes, through layers of flannel and cardigan. It felt about as erotic as touching my elbow. And at that moment I thought about all the times we hugged. Back then, we were always hugging each other. I thought about all the times I felt her breasts up against my chest. Or up against my back, those times she'd sneak up on me. And now know, kneading down through layers of clothing, didn't compare to her pushing up against me. As if I ever thought it could.
I stood back up and looked down at her, lying there in the bathtub, shirt riding up a bit, her other shoe catching the drip from the faucet. There was nothing I could take from her. Her heart was not like a pack of cigarettes, floating around the pockets of her coat, linty but loved. Not like my tape, that she could drop on the floor.
What was it that Dylan had that I didn't? No. That wasn't it. That was a stupid question. He had the jacket. But okay. I had other things. Like I was sensitive. I was patient. I liked the little things about her, like the way she snorted when she laughed. She'd probably die if she did that in front of him.
Why oh why was she so fucking stupid?
I stood and looked, at her face, passive in sleep, greasy black bangs cast sideways, revealing the forehead that I loved but she hated, that she said was too big or too broad. And I guess it was broad, but I didn't know that then. I just knew that it was hers and I loved her and I wanted her to love herself as much as I did. And I stood and looked and thought about how stupid she was and how much I wished that she'd stop being so stupid and I looked around, rummaged through the medicine cabinet, and then, under the sink, sure enough, there were a pair of trimming shears, castaways from a greater grooming kit, a little rusty but true. And I bent down, leaned in close and looked at her, and took a chunk of bang, a healthy sliver, and snipped. And the second after my hand came away with it, I knew this was not such a good thing. Her forehead had the look of a missing tooth. I was drunk. I tried to put it back. I tried to stick it to her oily forehead, depress it there, hoping it'd stick long enough for her to make it home.
But it wouldn't stick. It just dropped back down, over her eyes, onto her nose, her lips.
Just then Dylan came in. “What the fuck is going on?" he said.
I thought to hide the scissors, but it was no use. I turned to face him. “Fuck you," I said and I gripped them tighter. “This doesn't concern you." I had slivers of her hair stuck to my hands.