Death by Water by Gretchen Clark

1.

Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love first met at eleven o’clock at night on Friday January 12, 1989, just before Kurt’s band, Nirvana, took the stage of the Satyricon nightclub in Portland, Oregon.

–Joey Green, How They Met: Fateful Encounters of Famous Lovers, Rivals, Partners, and Other Strange Bedfellows

***

I first met you at Hickory Farms; a kitschy country store situated in the Town & Country strip mall where I worked part-time. I was standing behind the cheese counter sucking on a strawberry bon bon that I’d just pilfered from one of the candy barrels when you walked through the door.

“Are you hiring?” you asked.

I nodded and handed you an application attached to a clip board. I remember thinking that you looked like “Iceman,” the perfectly coiffed blond fighter pilot in Top Gun. Clean cut. Not my type.

Minutes later, you returned the completed application. Before you left, you reached into the cooler stocked with beef sticks, pulled out a two-foot long summer sausage, and tucked it under your coat. You threw me a conspiratorial grin, I found myself smiling back.

Our first date was on a Sunday afternoon at your house.

You led me into your family room and pointed out a seat on the couch, before disappearing into the kitchen. Minutes later, you reemerged carrying a tray arranged with a pitcher of lemonade and cookies. You sat down on a nearby chair, picked up a photo album from the coffee table, and started showing me pictures: you as a newborn swaddled in a pale green blanket; you rabbit hunting with your father; you as a skinny pre-teen receiving your yellow belt in karate. I bit into a vanilla wafer wondering what to make of this unexpected display of Victorian courtship.

After you finished showing me your life in photos, you gave me a tour of the rest of the house. We began in the sun-dappled backyard, and concluded in your parents’ white-on-white bedroom. The only color in the room came from a boudoir portrait of your mother (her wedding gift to your newly acquired stepdad) and a painting that, you explained, was a psychic’s rendering of your mother’s aura. Hanging in my own parents’ bedroom was a collage made out of beads and yarn depicting Adam and Eve standing naked under the Tree of Knowledge. In our house it served a purely decorative purpose. My parents didn’t believe in the Good Book but in good books.

I was curious about the aura painting: was it just a colorful memento, or was it a symbol of a New Age spirituality, one that meant something to you, as well? But I kept quiet. Even at sixteen, I knew that religion, in all its varied and rebranded forms, was a sensitive topic.

When it was time for me to go, you walked me out to my car. Staked haphazardly in your neighbor’s manicured lawn were tombstones with parodic names like Yul B. Next. and I.M. Gone.

“Are you going to any Halloween parties?” I asked.

 “Maybe. But I need a date. Interested?”

“Depends on what we go as,” I said, matching your casual tone.

“Beauty and the Beast,” you said, taking a step toward me. “Who is there who would not love this wounded heart?”

“Is that a line from the movie?” I asked, unsure. I didn’t watch Disney movies as a kid. Instead, I had a singular obsession with Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale,  “The Little Mermaid.” It was the original story, far different from the prettified Disney version I learned about much later: the mermaid in my story didn’t live happily ever after with her prince. She drowned herself to spare his life.

“No,” you said, “Bonaventure said it.”

I recalibrated my guess. “Poet or rock star?”

You reached up and slipped the ends of my blonde hair through your fingers.

“Saint.”

***

Our second date was to the movies, White Nights. While Lionel Ritchie sang, “Say You, Say Me,” I held your hand, the left one with that perfectly circular scar in the center. You had inflicted that scar yourself, with a quarter you heated on a stove element until it was hot enough to inflict a third-degree-burn. When I asked why you’d permanently marked yourself that way, you said only, “It’s a reminder.” Of what, you didn’t say; and I didn’t press. Instead, I gently traced that craggy pink moon of scar tissue.

***

Over Christmas break, you took me to dinner at Le Papillion, where the tables were covered in white linen and the cutlery was polished silver. We ordered tomato bisque and chocolate soufflé to share, the blue-orange flames dancing then disappearing before we took a bite. After, you drove us to Courtside, a luxury sports club where your family had a membership. We walked through the gym and out to the aquatic center. Past nine on a winter night, the pool was deserted. You reached your hand into a nearby planter and – abracadabra – pulled out a bottle of champagne.

We sat down on two lounge chairs. You popped the cork and we passed the bottle between us, sipping the warm effervescence.

“What do you long for?” I asked.

“For the world to be and act as one.”

“How Beatle-esque.” I said.

“Sum up your life in one word,” you said.

“Rad.”

“You are such a Valley Girl.”

“What’s your word?”

You took a long pull from the bottle. “Bleakness.”

“I thought we were having a good time,” I said.

“We are.”

“Then where’s the Grim Reaper vibe coming from?” I asked gently.

“Nowhere. Everywhere. Forget it.”

“Tell me.” I put my hand on your arm.

“You wouldn’t understand,” you said, shrugging off my touch. “Only the shrink I see does.”

2.

Courtney sent Kurt a heart-shaped box filled with tiny porcelain doll, three dried roses, a miniature teacup, and shellac-covered seashells. Before sending it she rubbed her perfume on it like a magical charm.

–Charles R. Cross, Heaver Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain

***

For Valentine’s Day, you gave me a bouquet of roses, a plush white teddy bear scented with your signature Polo cologne, a record single of Stevie Nicks “Talk To Me,” and a journal. On the inside flap you’d written: To: the one I Love, Don’t forget a day: And so it shall be forever and Always. That afternoon we went to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, a limestone edifice that housed the largest collection of  Ancient Egyptian artifacts in North America.

“What’s left?” you asked, toward the end of the afternoon. By then, we’d been wandering the expansive two-story building for hours.

I looked over the gallery map I held. “The Afterlife.”

We walked down a flight of stairs and into a cold, dimly lit room. We took in the withered remains of a mummies, stone engraved sarcophagi, and displays of canopic jars; containers, I learned from the informative placard, that were used to hold the organs of the deceased.

In the center of the room, within a large, clear rectangular encasement, stood two looming, wooden coffins. From the Saite Dynasty these elaborately decorated caskets had been made for a man and a woman around 600 B.C.

While you studied the detailed hieroglyphics, I watched our ghostlike reflections overlaid onto the two coffins. I was both terrified and fascinated that only a few inches of glass separated the living from the dead.

***

3.

Kurt Cobain was arrested by Aberdeen, Washington police in May 1986 and charged with trespassing while intoxicated.

–The Smoking Gun

***

In early March a cop caught you riding around after curfew on your moped, a half-empty pint of vodka bungeed onto the back. At the police station, your parents were called. They showed up livid. You smirked at their rage until the cop informed you that you’d been charged with two juvenile status offenses and that a court date would be set. You called to tell me what had happened.

“What kind of punishment are you looking at?” I asked.

“Suspension of license, payment of a penalty fine, or temporary placement in foster care.” Your sounded cool. Detached.

“Aren’t you worried?” I asked.

“No. If the judge puts me in foster care I’ll just run away.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you leave I will die.”

***

4.

On April 5, 1994 Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He closed his suicide note with these words:

            I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU.

***

On April 5, 1987 I stood in your garage watching you do pull-ups. Wrestling season had been over for months, but you were dedicated to maintaining your fitness. Watching you, I remembered the first time I saw you compete at a dual meet at my high school. I took a seat on the rival side bleachers; in my Varsity swim team sweatshirt, I was a blue stain in a sea of burgundy.

I made it clear then, as I would tonight, that nothing took precedence over my allegiance to you.

After you finished your workout, I followed you into the house.

You walked over to the wet bar in the corner of your living room, and poured us each two shots of peppermint schnapps. After we downed the clear mint fire, you led me down the hallway to your bedroom.

You shut the door behind us and took the phone receiver off the hook.

Above your twin bed hung a poster of a tree, sunlight streaming through its branches. Written underneath the trunk, a quote: “There are no ordinary moments.”

On your desk, nestled in a pelt of fur was your hunting knife. I touched the cold, sharp blade, thinking of the mermaid standing over her prince, knife in hand, considering: his life or hers? I remembered that when she sealed her fate by tossing the knife into the ocean, the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood.

I released the blade and turned toward you. “How do you skin a rabbit?”

“First,” you said, pulling me onto the floor and stretching me out, “put the rabbit on its back.” Next, you touched my ankles and wrists. “Make circular cuts here, and here.” Then you rested your palm several inches below the band of my shorts, where you told me a slit would be made.

The adrenaline of the flight or fight response flooded my body, but I forced myself to stay still. “Then what?” I asked.

“You insert the knife into the puncture and slice. . .”

5.

The language of love letters is the same as suicide notes.

–Courtney Love

***

Seven years later, on a cold, rainy night in January, I agreed to meet you for a drink at The Black Watch bar. I hadn’t lived at home for years by then, but I still received the errant piece of mail at my parents’ house. One afternoon when I’d stopped by to visit, my mom handed me an envelope. It was from you. The letter  was a friendly greeting, and a brief summary of your last few years; you’d traveled a bit, joined the army and were currently stationed in Germany.

There was nothing outwardly provocative in your first note, just a hello from an old friend getting back in touch. At home later, I could have shown my boyfriend the letter, but I didn’t. I kept it tucked in my purse.

You and I wrote to each other for months. I used my work address and kept your missives buried under folders and notebooks in a drawer there. When I was alone in the office I’d sometimes take out a letter and re-read it, skimming over the everyday of training exercise this week, German discotheques are a trip until I came across I miss you.

Then you sent a note mentioning that you’d be back in San Jose on leave at the end of January. Would I like to meet for a drink? This time, you added your phone number in Frankfurt.

6.

No one is afraid of heights, they’re afraid of falling down. No one is afraid of saying I love you, they’re afraid of the answer. . .

–Kurt Cobain

***

You were sitting at the bar when I walked in. Your crew cut was just beginning to grow out and the outline of your military-fit body was evident under your T-shirt. Even in the low lighting, in profile, I could see that the baby face of adolescence had been replaced by angular lines and lean maturity. You hadn’t seen me yet. I could turn around and leave. Instead, I took a deep breath and walked toward you.

We ordered two kamikazes, then found a free table by the pinball machine. Beside us was a bookshelf stuffed with various games. I pulled two dice cups from the middle shelf.

“We could play liar’s dice,” I said.

“In Germany they call it Bluff.”

“Same rules?”

“Think so.”

“What does the winner get?”

“To drive me home,” you said.

“Either way, you’re victorious,” I said.

You smiled, rattling your dice cup.

We talked while we played, covering the basics: my work, college, the army, life in a foreign country, family.

When our drinks got low, you flagged down a waitress. “Two more, please.”

After she placed refreshed cocktails on the table you held up your glass, “Do you know what the actual translation of kamikaze is?”

I gave the only association I knew: “Suicide bomber.”

You shook your head. ” ‘Divine wind’, attributed by the Japanese to unexpected typhoons that saved them from a naval ship attack ordered by Kublai Khan.

“You learn that fun fact in the army?” I teased.

“That, and how to kill.”

You never wrote about your time in the Gulf War, other than to say you’d been deployed in August of 1990. I’d had no idea then, as I watched the ramp-up to Desert Storm on the nightly news, that you were there in one of the cities highlighted on the map of the Persian Gulf, preparing to fight–and possibly die–for your country.

You took a drink of your kamikaze. “Tell me about your boyfriend.”

I had mentioned my boyfriend in my first letter to you. I pictured him now, sitting on the couch in our apartment believing that I was in class, where I always was on Tuesday nights, because I’d given him no reason to doubt my whereabouts. Earlier tonight, I’d come home after work the way I always did. As usual, I changed into jeans and a sweater, made dinner, and talked to him about his day. Then, I slung my backpack over my shoulder, closed the door behind me, and descended the apartment stairs. But instead of heading downtown to college and my night class, I drove to the Black Watch.

“We met in Oahu on vacation,” I said. “He lived in Oregon, so I moved there for a year, then we moved back to San Jose together.”

“What’s he like?”

I touched the pendant around my neck that he’d given me four months ago for my twenty-third birthday envisioning our tangle of shoes – my pumps, his cowboy boots – by our front door. I thought of the framed snapshot of us kissing under the Golden Gate bridge that sat propped on our stereo, the magazines fanned out across the coffee table, his Car and Driver alternating with my copies of my Runner’s World. The razor blade dusted with crank residue he kept hidden inside his wallet.

“A country boy with a good heart and a bit of a wild streak.”

“How long have you been together?”

“Three years.”

“Must be serious,” you said, looking at me. Your eyes were blue and dark, like the deepest part of the ocean where light can’t penetrate.

‘Tell me about the German girls,” I said, wanting to change the subject.

Between us, you turned your empty glass in a slow counter-clockwise circle. “Maybe I’m still hung up on a certain Valley Girl.”

Our waitress suddenly appeared, asking if we’d like another round.

“Just the check,” you said.

After you paid the bill, you helped me into my coat, then led the way through the bar to the exit. A few minutes later, I pulled up in front of your parents’ house. You fiddled with the radio dial, stopping on Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.We sat quietly, listening to the melancholic introduction.

“Such a dark, twisted love song,” you said.

“It started out with a different name,” I said.

You turned toward me. Glinting on your T-shirt were your silver dog tags. I reached up and held the two small oblong shapes between my fingers, weighing the consequences of pulling you toward me or letting go. I remembered that April night, all those years ago, when, at sixteen, we’d crossed a threshold together, stepped into a place from which we could never return. I remembered the emblem of loss, red and more copious than I expected, that marked my sheets hours after I left you. Now, sealed up in my car with you, only a few inches separated us from righteousness or darkness.

The rain was coming down in hard sheets. In Dante’s imagined hell, it wasn’t fire but water – a hurricane that never rests – that was the punishment for lust, for a young love like ours that should have died a long time ago yet still burned.

“What was the original title?’ you asked.

There are no ordinary moments.

Ever so slightly, I tugged on your tags. My final words, whispered before we plummeted into black oblivion:

“Heart-Shaped Coffin.”

 

 

 

 

 

Source List:

Green, Joey. How They Met: Fateful Encounters of Famous Lovers, Rivals, Partners, and Other Strange Bedfellows. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2003. Print.

Cross, Charles R. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. New York: Hyperion, 2002. Print.

Mug Shots: Music, Kurt Cobain. The Smoking Gun. Thesmokinggun.com. Web 9 Nov. 2015.

“Heart-Shaped Box.” Nirvanapedia. Wikia. Web. 2 Sept. 2015

Hans Christian Andersen. “The Little Mermaid.” HCA. Gilead.org, 13 Dec. 2007. Web. 9 Aug. 2015.

Dante Alighieri. “The Divine Comedy.” Full Text Archive. Fulltextarchive.com. Web. 23 July 2015.

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Gretchen Clark‘s work has appeared in Word Riot, Pithead Chapel, Switchback, Literary Mama, and Blood Lotus, among others. Her essay “Pink Chrysanthemum” (originally published in 94 Creations) was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.