Death by Water by Gretchen Clark
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 inTop 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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“Because if you leave I will die.”
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. . .”
The language of love letters is the same as suicide notes.
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.
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. . .
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.”
“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 myRunner’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?”
“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:
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.
Slow to Learn by Jim Ross
Despite being a klutz with tools, I’ve taken on a steady stream of handyman work in recent years because of my volunteer service with, of all things, the local ballet company in my hometown of Ocala, Florida. My two daughters dance, thus qualifying me for automatic induction into the “Backstage Dads” regiment. We dads move props in and out of the Ocala Civic Theatre before and after each run of ballet shows. We repair sets and handle behind-the-curtain mechanical and physical tasks. We wear black T-shirts, cuss under our breath, and roam the theater’s back shop, which looks like an airplane hangar jammed full of lumber, wrenches, saw horses and crusty paint cans.
On performance nights we change sets between scenes while costumed ballerinas, desperate to reach their appointed spots on stage before the curtain rises, sprint past us like 7-11 robbers one step ahead of the law. When pre-, post- or intra-show problems arise — a piece of painted foam must be glued back onto the Nutcrackerthrone or a fog machine’s heating element fails — we make quick fixes. Chaos is the default setting. Fritchy Smith, a backstage dad emeritus, remembers the curtain rising on many Opening Nights to reveal props still wet with fresh paint. I believe him.
The current leader of the Backstage Dads is Jody, a contractor who builds huge screened-in enclosures around outdoor swimming pools. He also hunts, fishes, pilots boats, and has repaired every prop crammed inside the ballet company’s three storage units. He can work any tool, solve any problem, beat any deadline. His wife calls him MacGyver.
My wife calls me McLovin — or she would, if she had ever seen Superbad and acquainted herself with that character’s epic nerdiness. I can’t even properly attach the kickplate grille to the bottom of our refrigerator. I struggled to “build” my son’s Pinewood Derby car from a factory kit designed for 8-year-olds. This handyman ineptitude is lifelong. My dad imparted some tips (“always buy good tools!”) but I didn’t learn much from his tutelage. My father-in-law is a jack-of-all-trades who showed me how to apply grout around a bathtub and connect a refrigerator to a water line. Unfortunately, my knowledge retention is poor, and what little I remember never seems to help on the next job.
With minimal skill and even less confidence, my only hope is to think my way through each manual task. I survey the job and plot a strategy. I organize the parts on a towel, ready for deployment. I follow instructions, use all the provided hardware, stick with hand tools, watch how-to videos on YouTube, and pray.
Sometimes it all works. I once gently pried the thumb-sized front panel off the water regulator on the upstairs bath tub, tightened the loose screw, and snapped the panel back into place. No waterfall erupted. More typical was the night spent years ago disassembling a crib so it could be moved from one bedroom to another. In frustration I bent back an uncooperative piece and cracked the wood. I visited a repair shop west of town where an older man walked out, looked at the severed leg, and had the decency not to ask what had happened.
One Saturday morning back in October I used a rust-tinged hand saw to attack a huge thicket of tree limbs that had fallen and split my neighbor’s wooden fence, leaving half the mess in her yard and half in mine. Jody would have used a chainsaw and been finished in 10 minutes. I would have severed a finger or obliterated the entire fence if I had used a power tool. So I spent an hour trimming around the edges. I was, of course, unable to remove the main limb, which was thick as a telephone pole. When I finally gave up the limb was still there, jutting through the fence like a man’s arm holding an elevator door open.
Lack of skill doesn’t deter me from tackling jobs. After all, the work must be done, and I can’t afford a professional house call every time a sink clogs. Humiliation usually isn’t a concern, either, since my family doesn’t exactly line up to watch me adjust the lawnmower’s self-propel belt. My male ego is as fragile as the next guy’s, but fear of feeling like a sissy no longer holds me back. I do the best I can and live with what I can’t rise above.
Hence my willing, if unlikely, conscription into the Backstage Dads. Compelled by paternal duty, loathe to let the team down, and resigned to my limited usefulness, I present my clumsy self for duty at every ballet show, rehearsal and Saturday morning work session. The dads have worked with me long enough to know I’m a stiff, but they’re nice enough not to say so out loud. We’ve become good friends over the years, even though I can’t swap hunting and fishing stories because I don’t partake in either activity.
My skills have improved somewhat over time, if only because of osmosis. I can climb into the theater rafters and lower the cloth backdrops onstage. I can find and reset the circuit when our dry-ice machine overloads the theater’s electrical system. Still, when you’re as unskilled, and unsure, as I am, a terrifying moment is never far away. One night, during a dress rehearsal, I couldn’t untie a cloth drop that needed to be unfurled during a lightning-quick set change. The stage was almost completely dark, and the ties binding the drop were gnarled and unyielding. “Help!” I whispered as loudly as I dared. Jody darted across the darkened stage and rescued me with his pocket knife. He had one, of course. I didn’t, of course. The curtain didn’t come up on time, and I stood panting in the stage-right wing, happy that the shadowy darkness concealed my red face. I knew what all the other volunteers were thinking: It’s his fault. Jody said I panicked and couldn’t perform. Actually, I couldn’t perform and then I panicked. And then I thought what I always think: The other dads would have gotten it right.
In addition to our theater work, the Backstage Dads also provide design and construction services. On that Saturday in October when I had the disastrous backyard encounter with the errant tree limbs, Jody and I stood inside the ballet studio examining a picture of a huge gingerbread house. Sally, one of the “Costume Moms,” informed us that the artistic director wanted a life-sized replica of this house built for our December run of The Nutcracker. Jody peered at the picture, no doubt mentally picturing the framing, bracing and connecting required to build this prop. I nodded knowingly, mentally picturing the finished product but having no clue how to create it.
A few weeks later, the Backstage Dads gathered in the dance studio parking lot amid an impressive array of lumber and power tools. Randy, who is an engineer, was there. So was Bryan, who is a general contractor, and Richard, who works road construction. I wasn’t just a fish out of water; I couldn’t even see the water.
We gathered around Jody, who sketched a drawing and wrote the letters “NTS” next to it. “You know what that means?” he asked. “Not to scale!” He popped a two-by-four beneath the skill saw that sat on his pickup truck bed, made a quick measurement, and drew two sure lines on the board (wisk! wisk!) with a pencil retrieved from behind his ear. Then came a brief screech and the smell of fresh sawdust as the blade lowered onto the board and obliterated the lines.
That’s how it went all afternoon: measuring and cutting wood; drilling holes and connecting braces with bolts; bringing a gingerbread house to life from nothing but a pile of wood and a dream. My contribution, per usual, was picking up lumber scraps and steadying boards while the other guys wielded power saws and screw guns. Once, a year or so earlier, Jody had handed me the staple gun and offered to hold a board while I did the main work. It’s OK, I told him after a few miserable efforts. I don’t mind playing straight man to the main talent.
As always I marveled at the other dads: their easy manner, their ability to envision the next steps. They knew when to adjust a connection, even if only a quarter of an inch, and when to just bang the union into line with a hammer. They worked expertly, neither fast nor slow, and confidently, knowing that any mishap could be remedied. On days like that I feel like I’ll never be a proper backstage dad, no matter how carefully I observe, no matter how much knowledge I try to absorb.
The funny thing is, despite my inadequacies, I derive undue satisfaction and pride from my work with the Backstage Dads. In December, when The Nutcracker run finally started and that crazy A-frame gingerbread house was pushed on stage, with a garish Mother Ginger riding on top, I stood silently triumphant in the stage-right wing. I helped steady those boards. I grabbed a nut driver from the back shop and helped swap out the metal casters on which the structure rolled. My contributions couldn’t have been less consequential, but I acted like I had single-handedly built the Taj Mahal and was preparing to speak at the royal ribbon cutting.
You would think I’d feel this sense of accomplishment for something I’m actually good at, like my day jobs: writing, editing and teaching. But I usually feel relief, if I feel anything at all, at day’s end. I operate more like a harried M*A*S*H surgeon than a craftsman. My days as city editor at my hometown newspaper are full of quick edits and hastily written stories. CNN distracts me with the latest “breaking news” alerts and celebrity trash, with Twitter and Facebook waiting to capture my attention even if I can manage to ignore the boob tube. At home, grading sessions begin with appropriate intensity, but before long I tire of correcting the same mistakes (time, date, place for sequences; don’t capitalize titles after the person’s name) and my fingers wander to my smartphone. The college journalism class I teach starts at 7:20 p.m. on Tuesdays, and I’m often still grading papers in my parked car at 7:05. Only a drop-dead deadline can shake me into full action.
Perhaps manual work brings out the craftsman in me, albeit with dismal results. But it’s not just the nature of the work. I’ve come to see that pride of craftsmanship is dependent, at least in part, on full immersion in a task. My handyman skills are so poor that I have no choice but to fully concentrate. I’m all in, if also all thumbs. Writing, editing and teaching also are crafts, of course, but my proficiency lets me get by without full engagement. I don’t plan to start wearing work gloves and a tool belt to the office. But my work with the Backstage Dads reminds me of how thrilling even a minor accomplishment can be when you turn off the auto-pilot.
The Nutcracker is our most ambitious show each year, but the company also stages a spring ballet. The last time the Backstage Dads were all together was a Sunday in April, after the final performance of that year’s spring show, Cinderella. We packed up the props and costumes and trucked them across town from the theater to the storage units at the ballet studio. Then we gathered around Jody’s pickup truck in the parking lot to enjoy the traditional round of post-show beers.
I arrived a few minutes late to find the guys leaning on the sides of Jody’s black metal trailer, which was hooked to the back of his truck. The trailer’s mesh-metal sides stand just high enough to serve as forearm rests. A light rain had fallen on and off that afternoon, and a bit of pale sunlight leaked through the damp sky. “Let’s get you something stronger than that,” Jody said, pointing to my green Sprite bottle and reaching for a cold Miller Lite. Can’t do it, I replied. My wife was out of town and kid duty awaited me at home.
Then came a surprise: The guys praised my ability, demonstrated one week earlier when we moved into the theater, to manually roll out the air bubbles that had formed beneath the gray sheet-vinyl floor we tape onto the stage for every show. This de-bubbling work was hardly complex: I had taken a cardboard cylinder, crouched down like a sprinter with his feet in the blocks, then pushed the cylinder fast and hard across the floor, from stage right to stage left, until the little air bubbles between the stage floor and the vinyl floor dissipated. The smoother the surface, the better for the dancers. On that day, for some reason, it all clicked and the vinyl behaved, snugly hugging the wooden theater floor in bubble-free beauty.
The dads’ compliment was throwaway, but inside I was thrilled. During my years as a Backstage Dad no one had ever praised my work. After all, there’s only so much you can say about a man’s ability to sweep out the wings and hold a flashlight while someone with real skills tries to figure out why the fog machine’s water reservoir is leaking.
With another show behind us, we all said goodbye and headed home: them in their pickup trucks, me in my 13-year-old minivan. Buoyed by the unexpected praise and unsaddled by beer buzz, I was ready to take on a handyman challenge. I was even confident enough to get a chainsaw and finally do away with the rest of that thick tree limb in my backyard. But by then it was too late.
Several months after my ineffectual encounter with the oak, my neighbor hired a crew to remove what was left of the tree section, on my side and hers, and to erect a new fence section. It’s funny how quickly things can change. That spot in the yard was a half-finished mess when I left for work one day. By the time I got home, the problem was gone — and it didn’t seem like it had ever been that big of a deal in the first place.
The Confused by Thomas Cox
There were only four things to do in Greeneville, Tennessee on a Saturday night. You could go to the movies, go bowling, go skating, or go away. The skating rink sat just off of highway 11-E. The sign out front was a large roller skate, and below it was a marqueed box that reads “Hot Wheels Family Skate Center” and their hours of operation. They were open during the week, but I had never heard of anyone going there except on the weekends. During the summer, when they were closed, the sign always read “Gone Fishin’” regardless of any changes in management.
My sister, Megan, only a year younger than me, had been going there every Friday and Saturday for the past two years. She never missed a day if she could help it. I hadn’t been in well over ten years, and never thought I would go back. Then, on the third weekend of January in 2015, I returned home for the weekend. My friend Brittany joined me. The two of us had been back in class at University of Tennessee Knoxville for a little over a week and were already tired of it.
“Let’s go skating,” Megan said.
“Hell yeah.” Brittany said.
Megan bounded out of the room to get her skates on.
I was going to answer with a firm ‘meh,’ but Brittany had sealed the deal. Once you told my sister you were going to do something with her, there were no take backs. Brittany used to skate all the time, and she missed it. I hadn’t skated in nearly a decade, and I tried to appear indifferent about it. I was actually nervous as hell. I didn’t think I remembered how to skate, and I was sure my coordination only worsened in those ten years. My best friend Morgan was back in town from our school and learned of the plan. It had also been almost ten years since she last skated, but she was sure she could pick it back up fast.
I didn’t want to try and talk Brittany out of going. She was super excited and talked about how much she missed skating. Megan was also excited at the idea of all of us joining her for skating. She looked up to me as her big brother and loved it when I did stuff with her. I didn’t want to let either of them down. Morgan, on the other hand, didn’t care what we did. She was along for the ride.
Part of me still wouldn’t have minded a sudden divine intervention or maybe a bad omen or anything out of my control that might have caused a cancellation (That didn’t involve anyone getting hurt). My sister had her own skates that my dad had found for her at a flea market. I mentioned to Brittany that we’d have to rent skates, and they may cost money and will be gross. There was no telling how many nasty feet had been in them. As I finished speaking, my dad walked into the house, and I heard the thud of skates hitting the wooden floor in the kitchen. He had three pairs of skates also from the flea market in his shed. I tried on the pair he dug up for me, and they fit perfectly. It was divine intervention towards me going (not the kind I was hoping for); I resigned myself to go. The three of them would support and help me, and I at least had good skates. I thought surely I could figure out skating, maybe even pick it up quick. I’d just have to think it through.
On Saturdays, the place opened right at 7pm, and Megan would be damned if she arrived any later than that. They closed at midnight. Tickets were eight dollars a person, and she wanted to get the full five hours out of it.
The building was a large warehouse built in ‘75. The bottom half was orange and the top yellow (both particular colors palettes ceased production by the 80s). My mother said the building has looked exactly the same since she moved to Greeneville in ‘77. It started as a skating rink and stayed one until ‘88 when it was a Big Lots for a year and then closed up. Wholesale couldn’t keep the skating away, and the place opened in ‘92 as a skating rink again.
The entrance is a small lobby with a window for a ticket booth. The door leading into the rink was a dark orange, and buzzed when you could open it. We bought tickets and walked in.
In front of us are two large wooden boxes with carpet on top that serve as seats for putting on and taking off skates. We do that. There is a line nearby of people walking up to the DJ and requesting songs.
Megan is up and going, first, the Regular. Brittany follows, the Veteran. She remembers exactly how it is all done, and blends in fast. Then Morgan next, the Natural. She picks it up just as quickly as she thought she would. She must have been born knowing how to skate. I am last, the Confused. The skates feel awkward on my feet.
The rink takes up most of the floor. A light blue cinderblock wall separates the rink from the rest of the room. I go around and around. I see the small concession stand and tables on the other side of the wall, and remember when I was younger and hitting my shins on the booths.
The motion makes no sense to me. How am I even moving forward? Push with my right foot, push with my left foot. Push right, push left. I can’t look around long before I lose my balance. Brittany the Veteran passes and smiles. Maybe I’m doing something right, but I don’t know what that is.
Around and around. I see the bathrooms and realize that I’ve never been in them. I was too afraid of public restrooms as a kid, and these still look ominous to me. The thought of falling while peeing makes me glad I went before we left. Push left, push right. I don’t know what I am doing. My feet never leave the ground. I am rooted and on wheels.
There are some pool tables near the concession stand. Just four of them, but that area used to be full of pinball machines. At least ten of them. I would go to the skating rink just so I could play pinball. Wouldn’t even skate. They had my favorite table, Jurassic Park, long ago. I wish it was still here so I could go play it.
Everyone, but the little kids holding on to each other for dear life, is passing me. I want someone to hold on to for dear life, but being the only guy here over 16 but under 35 makes it difficult to find another Confused to lean on where someone wouldn’t call the police or raise an eyebrow. I think hard. Push with my right foot, push with my left foot, and then coast. Turn coming up. Lean left and push with right. Wide turn, almost too wide. Dodge the elementary kids. Now push left, push right, coast forward.
A middle schooler cuts me off in the straight away and looks me in the eyes. He stares, asserts his skating dominance, and takes off. He is long gone before I can make the next turn. I am not sure if I’ve been humiliated or not. I mess up the turn, my trajectory now heading towards the front of the building. I correct a bit to aim for a bench, and reach one that is empty. I sit down alone and think.
This isn’t my place, these aren’t my people. I am an outsider. I don’t understand the rituals, the right of ways, or anything here. If I am going to not feel excluded, I have to figure out how to skate. I think about it more. Push left, push right. Coast. Turn wide. Push left, push right. Around and around and around. Turns confuse me. I watch others do them. They are flawless, defy physics. Right over left behind right over left behind right over left. Their feet point forwards, they move in a curve. I try to think it through, reason it out. I stand up and scoot out onto the rink. I move to pick up foot, shake, and stumble. Morgan the Natural passes.
“I can’t figure out turns.” I say.
“Don’t think so damn hard about it,” she says. She’s mastered turns already. I see Brittany in the crowd of skaters. She never forgot how to turn. I go back to my methods.
Push right. Push left. Coast. Turn wide. Push right. Push left. Coast.
DJ comes on over the intercom.
Everyone not in a racing mood gets off the rink and sits down somewhere. Megan the Regular participates. Relays are too much for my mind to process. I can’t go fast, and having to keep in my lane would be impossible. I have enough trouble going straight while keeping my balance. Morgan and Brittany sit next to me on the bench, talking.
“I can’t believe I remember how to do this,” Morgan the Natural says.
“It is easier than you think,” Brittany the Veteran says.
I sit, remain the Confused. Fall Out Boy starts playing overhead. The air smells of sweat and greasy food.
It was October 2006 at Greeneville Middle School, the night of a dance. I was in the seventh grade. The cafeteria floor was clear of all tables and flooded with pubescent hormones. A stage at the front of the room housed the DJ, always taking requests. No one knew how to dance, but the lights were dark enough that no one cared. People judged, but they all danced anyway. Enjoyed themselves.
I sat off to the edge, and ate overpriced pizza and drank soda. My friends sat with me, but they also danced from time to time. I didn’t. A teacher was scolding two girls nearby for sneaking off into a corner and making out. She said everyone could see what they were doing. They seemed unfazed, but I was horrified at the thought. I didn’t want anyone to see me.
The dances were the epitome of fun within Middle School. If you didn’t go to the dance, then it was because you were a loser. I didn’t want to be a loser. I wanted to dance. I didn’t know how to do it, and I’d think about it over and over.
I walked out onto the dance floor among the other middle schoolers, started to dance (if you could call it that), and then fell apart. I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do. How do I move my body? Everyone looked at me. The eyes of my classmates, my teachers, the principal, the former students in the class pictures on the walls. All eyes. A classmate stood in front of me, looked me in the eye, and started dancing. I coiled inward, and walked back to my place on the edge of the room.
Fall Out Boy started playing. The air smelled of greasy food and sweat.
The relay race is over. Megan’s great at skating. She fell down once, but it didn’t bother her. She got up, kept going. I wish I could skate like she does, like there is no real effort required. She rolls over to the three of us and sits down. We rest on the bench. Dance music starts playing. Brittany the Veteran begins dancing, a feat I thought impossible in skates. I look to my right, and my sister is also dancing with other Regulars.
“Be careful Brittany,” Morgan says, “Don’t want to end up in some kid’s wet dream.”
Brittany keeps dancing, the middle and high schoolers looking at her do not daunt her. Neither do the thirty year olds. Eyes are on her, more eyes than I’d ever want on me.
“Why don’t you dance?” Brittany asks Morgan.
“Because I want to be so scary no one will ever want to masturbate to me,” Morgan says. The DJ comes on overhead again, “Time for the Ladies’s Skate. Ladies, onto the rink.”
They get up and skate. I am alone at on the end of the bench. I look at my phone. It is a little after 11. I look around. The DJ is taking a request from a small child. Neither is sure what the other one is saying. People enter and leave from the entrance, even though the place closes in an hour. The lines at the bathrooms are long. I don’t even want to think about trying to pee in skates right now. The DJ comes on overhead again.
“Girls in the corner, don’t do that. We can all see you.”
I didn’t catch what they were doing.
The teenager behind the skate rental counter stares off into the distance. A kid walks up to ask for the bolts on his skates to be tightened. This brings her back to reality. I have no idea what or where the bolts on a skate are located and make a mental note to ask Megan later. Now it is Men’s Skate. I don’t go out there. The boys all skate too fast, and I’d get run over, fall down, or worse, humiliated in front of everyone. Megan, Brittany, and Morgan skate back to the bench. They talk with each other. The tables around the concession stand are full of parents. They all sit and talk to fellow parents, and eat overpriced hot dogs and popcorn and pizza. It is bottomless soda night, and I wish I was taking advantage of that. Someone orders a big plate of nachos and cheese, but trips on someone else’s purse in the floor. The nachos go flying, and crash land on a nearby table. People scream from getting hit with chips and cheese.
The pool tables are empty. No one is interested in pool. I miss pinball. The benches along the wall are full. People want the group skates to finish up so they can get back to all skating together. The Cha-Cha Slide comes on overhead. The DJ asks for everyone to dance. There are five or six Middle Schoolers, none of them in skates, dancing off to the side. Brittany turns to me and asks if I want to dance. I say no, my legs freeze at the thought.
It was the 3rd of January, 2015, just two weeks ago. I was in Memphis visiting Brittany. There was a family reunion while I visited, and I was invited. It was a formal occasion, celebrating her grandfather’s 80th birthday. The room was large with wood floors and table-clothed tables. On top of them were elaborate centerpieces: glass bowls and plants. I was sitting at a table, off to the side of the dance floor. On my second rum and coke the band started playing, and we were encouraged to dance. I had on a tweed jacket and a bowtie (looked kind of like a professor). All of the other guys wore ties, suits, and dress shoes. I had on Converse. The only person there I had known for more than a week was Brittany. I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me.
She asked if I wanted to dance, but I wasn’t feeling it. She danced anyway, wanted to have fun. I did too, and wanted to get onto the dance floor. I couldn’t, my legs wouldn’t let me. They froze in place, and I was overwhelmed with fears of dancing in front of everyone. I was also afraid of disappointing Brittany. Did she expect me to dance? I didn’t know. I ended up grabbing something to drink, and leaving the room. I felt a headache building, and my legs hurt slightly. The music was too loud. My brain was too loud. I sat outside on a bench in the cool and smelly Memphis air with one of Brittany’s uncles, Kenny.
“I don’t know anyone in there,” Kenny said, “And they’re family.”
“How long you been away?” I asked.
“Like, ten years.” he said.
“So we both don’t belong here.”
We sat in silence for a while, sipping our drinks.
“Why didn’t you dance with Brittany?” he asked.
“Because everyone was staring at me,” I said. We talked about movies and games and books for the rest of the evening. They ended the party by playing the Cha-Cha Slide. I went back in after the music ended, and Brittany and I left.
The DJ announces All-Skate for the rest of the evening, everyone can skate now. The air is hot and smells of grease. Megan, Brittany, and Morgan are already on the rink, going around and around and around. Skating would end at midnight, only half an hour left. My legs hurt, and I feel a headache building. Push left, push right. I watch people skate. Push left, push right. Lean left, cross right. Straight feet, curved turn. I try to understand. Push right, push left, coast, lean left, cross right, turn, push right, push left. I think and think and think. Around the rink. Around my mind. Inward the coil tightens. The room is getting darker, eyes turn towards me. Why am I here if not to skate? Ever inward, more eyes. Push left push right push left push right. Do it now or end the evening on the bench. Lean left cross right turn push left push right. Around and around and around. This is it. Push left push—
I stand up.
I stop thinking.