The Itchy Glowbo Blues

New England Review - - Reflections - Joshua Har­mon

Ishouldn't be writ­ing to some­one I barely know,” Rachel's post­card read, “when I'm this de­pressed + faith­less. The smoke from my cig­a­rette is even sting­ing my eyes.”

I'd met Rachel a few years ear­lier, at my friend Ben's house, dur­ing the brief time they were go­ing out. She'd brought a VHS copy of David Lynch's Blue Vel­vet, then two years old, and the three of us, with Ben's younger brother, had gath­ered around the small tele­vi­sion in his mother's sewing room to watch it. Dur­ing the in­fa­mous scene where Kyle Ma­clach­lan's char­ac­ter peeps from the closet while Dennis Hopper's char­ac­ter in­hales ni­trous ox­ide, then beats and dry-humps Is­abella Ros­sellini's char­ac­ter, Ben's fa­ther walked into the room. A stern, quiet book­seller, Ben's fa­ther watched the movie for a minute, too, then shut off the tele­vi­sion, ejected the video­tape, and told us to go do some­thing else.

When she sent me the post­card, in June 1990, Rachel and Ben had long since bro­ken up, but I'd asked her to sub­mit some writ­ing to a one-off 'zine I planned to make. Rachel had given us some po­ems for an ear­lier 'zine Ben and I had com­piled, Sketch Fifty-three, and now she took cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses in col­lege. I was nine­teen, and wanted to pro­duce a more se­ri­ous, more literary 'zine than Sketch, filled with se­ri­ous, literary sto­ries—like the ones I'd just en­coun­tered by Car­son Mccullers, or like those my new girl­friend, Jen, told me she'd read in a literary jour­nal called Con­junc­tions.

Rachel was a smart, glib, clas­si­cally trained mu­si­cian, and the first per­son I knew whose moods needed to be ad­justed by psy­choac­tive drugs. She wrote dark po­ems inspired by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sex­ton. But my planned literary 'zine did not im­press her. “I'm ap­pre­hen­sive about send­ing you the com­pleted ‘sex piece' be­cause of per­sonal feel­ings + my chang­ing at­ti­tudes about the per­son it's about,” Rachel's post­card con­cluded. She'd ad­dressed it only to “Josh,” and a large, de­lib­er­ate inkblot par­tially ob­scured the name of my street. Her hand­writ­ing looked like melted can­dle wax: the sec­ond “t” in “cig­a­rette” de­scended two full lines. On the front of the post­card, Dy­lan Thomas cups a lit match to the tip of a cig­a­rette in his lips. The post­mark has faded al­most to in­vis­i­bil­ity—i'd dis­cov­ered Dy­lan Thomas's ear­li­est sto­ries, such as “The Tree,” that same year, and loved them, so tacked this post­card above my writ­ing desk for years—but I can still, just barely, read the date.

Joshua Har­mon

A month or so af­ter I re­ceived Rachel's post­card, I moved into an illegal at­tic apart­ment up on Bos­ton's Mis­sion Hill, and that fall I be­gan tak­ing classes at Umass Bos­ton, though I knew I'd trans­fer out: I hadn't sub­mit­ted my fi­nan­cial aid forms, and now I could only af­ford state tu­ition. My course­work was light. Home com­put­ers then still ex­isted mostly in the homes of the wealthy, and our pro­fes­sors al­lowed us to hand­write our es­says on lined pages if we owned no type­writer: I sub­mit­ted my pa­pers in neat block cap­i­tals. The other stu­dents some­times groaned when our pro­fes­sors an­nounced a read­ing as­sign­ment or re­minded us of a due date. I rode the T forty-five min­utes each way to and from cam­pus, and worked twenty-five hours a week, but man­aged to squan­der a lot of af­ter­noons look­ing through my apart­ment's sky­lights over rooftops, smoke­stacks, and church spires. My room­mate, a Massart stu­dent, spent en­tire days and a lot of late nights in the glass­blow­ing stu­dio. Oth­er­wise, she was usu­ally out with ei­ther an older guy who some­times gave her money, or a long­haired artist boyfriend from school who said he'd tat­too my unim­pos­ing bi­cep with an ironic re­pro­duc­tion of one of Garth Wil­liams's or E. H. Shep­ard's line draw­ings, though he never did. We had no lease on the apart­ment, which tech­ni­cally didn't ex­ist. Ev­ery so of­ten, home at the same time, we'd crank up Public En­emy, Queen Lat­i­fah, Elvis Costello, De La Soul, or Madonna on the stereo, but mostly we stayed out of each other's way.

Ben at­tended Bos­ton Univer­sity, though I didn't see him of­ten. Rachel went to col­lege in the western end of the state. Jen had just started at Bard, and that school's three-week in­ten­sive “Learn­ing and Think­ing” work­shop for in­com­ing stu­dents in­ter­rupted our sum­mer ro­mance in early Au­gust. When I was nine­teen, Cocteau Twins—the Scot­tish band I liked more than any other that year—seemed so­phis­ti­cated: peo­ple didn't mosh to Cocteau Twins. They didn't— couldn’t— even sing along to Cocteau Twins, since no one could re­ally tell what El­iz­a­beth Fraser, the band's singer, was say­ing. In­stead, they had long, thought­ful con­ver­sa­tions about art mu­se­ums or overnight flights to Bel­gium while lis­ten­ing to Cocteau Twins, whose song ti­tles in­cluded words such as “flag­stones,” “musette,” and “hitherto”—words that might be spo­ken in such con­ver­sa­tions. Cocteau Twins also seemed like good make­out mu­sic, but it would have to be se­ri­ous mak­ing out, with oc­ca­sional long looks into each other's eyes to in­di­cate ev­ery­thing that could never be ut­tered, never be fully un­der­stood.

Jen, too, seemed so­phis­ti­cated: she es­chewed T-shirts and jeans for flo­ral­print sun­dresses and del­i­cate cardi­gans, wore her hair short, and worked at a book­store where she read those early is­sues of Con­junc­tions, years be­fore I'd heard of the writ­ers in its pages. She spoke softly. She knew way more about cin­ema than I ever would. She planned to ma­jor—and did ma­jor—in phi­los­o­phy.

I wanted to be—or at least to ap­pear—so so­phis­ti­cated, but in my soli­tary

mo­ments I could ac­knowl­edge my pos­tur­ing, if only to my­self. All of my friends seemed—and were—more worldly than I was, but Jen's so­phis­ti­ca­tion ex­ceeded that of ev­ery­one else I knew. Most nine­teen-year-olds, no mat­ter how ma­ture they feel, are, al­most by def­i­ni­tion, sopho­moric: I cer­tainly was. Around Jen, I of­ten felt loud, clumsy, goofy. The fact that I rarely rec­og­nized my boor­ish­ness prob­a­bly made it es­pe­cially aw­ful. Few record la­bels have ever taken them­selves as se­ri­ously as Lon­don's 4ad— the name, in true early '80s fash­ion, an artsy ab­bre­vi­a­tion of “for­ward.” 4ad's aes­thetic, in sound and vis­ual de­sign, ini­tially fol­lowed the dour post-punk path blazed by Fac­tory Records, but when, by the sec­ond half of the '80s, many of Fac­tory's artists syn­the­sized funk, New York hip-hop, Detroit and Chicago house, Ibiza's Balearic Beat, and Eurodisco into what be­came the “Mad­ch­ester” rave scene, 4ad dou­bled down on its mist-shrouded, gold-fil­i­greed aes­thetic: the la­bel's records fea­tured cover photos of dressmaker's dum­mies and grave­yard stat­u­ary, band names such as Throw­ing Muses and This Mor­tal Coil, ty­pog­ra­phy that of­ten looked like the hand­writ­ing on Rachel's post­card—all per­fect for some­one who took him­self as se­ri­ously as I did.

No band on 4ad's ros­ter de­fined the la­bel as much as Cocteau Twins, who were them­selves of­ten de­fined by their vo­cal­ist. One critic named Fraser “the voice of God,” while other crit­ics and fans de­scribed her lyrics as any­thing from Elvish to in­com­pre­hen­si­ble gib­ber­ish, and buried her singing be­neath ad­jec­tives—an­gelic, op­er­atic, cheru­bic, dra­matic, etc.—as if to in­di­cate only the in­ad­e­qua­cies of de­scrip­tive lan­guage. In the 1980s, she sang like no other pop singer did. Her voice re­mains Cocteau Twins' most im­me­di­ately strik­ing fea­ture, but it mat­tered to me mostly in how it con­trib­uted to the band's over­all mood, since my moods were pre­cisely why I loved to lis­ten to their records and since the band didn't of­fer much be­yond mood, any­way: lots of pro­cessed guitar tex­tures, arpeg­gios ring­ing like bells, the whooshes and hums of cathe­dral-sized am­bi­ence, drowsy bass lines, and some of the least funky beats ever pro­grammed on a Roland tr-808 Rhythm Com­poser. Most Cocteau Twins songs end in pretty much the same place they be­gin: the mu­sic's ten­sion de­rives not from pro­gres­sion but from a lack of res­o­lu­tion.

I loved most the first two Cocteau Twins LPS, Gar­lands and Head Over Heels, recorded when the band mem­bers were nine­teen them­selves and mak­ing their most brood­ing and bummed out mu­sic. Head Over Heels opens with the cannon-blast booms of a drum ma­chine while an elec­tronic high-hat rings like chimes in the back­ground, and then, as what sounds like a lop­sided Fris­bee whizzes past, a treated guitar riff growls and dithers be­low a twin­kling, ten­ta­tive key­board melody—and that's all be­fore Fraser even be­gins singing in her weird, ar­rest­ing voice. No other mu­sic sounded bet­ter when I drove down a dark, empty coun­try road in the mid­dle of the night, head­lights flash­ing among tree

Joshua Har­mon

trunks as I passed. No other mu­sic sounded bet­ter while snow ac­cu­mu­lated over the city all af­ter­noon. No other mu­sic sounded bet­ter when I lay atop my fu­ton with head­phones on, won­der­ing why Jen no longer wanted to hang out with me. From the sec­ond-floor vintage shop in Ken­more Square where I worked for eight dol­lars an hour un­der the ta­ble, I watched the au­tumn sun set as B-line trol­leys emerged from un­der­ground and rat­tled west on Comm Ave. Few cus­tomers found their way up the stairs the evenings I worked, and, as I'd now done for a few years, I sat by my­self amid racks and racks of old dis­carded clothes that some­one hoped still had value. Bored and lonely, I wrote Jen letters from the store, and one week mailed her a let­ter a day—long-dis­tance calls were then billed by the minute—af­ter which, feel­ing smoth­ered, she de­cided to break up with me, though I didn't re­al­ize it yet.

I also didn't yet know that the en­tire block of old brick build­ings where I worked—in­clud­ing famed rock club the Rat, into which my boss told me he'd watched David Byrne and Tina Wey­mouth carry their tiny am­pli­fiers some­time in the '70s—would be razed, within a decade, to make way for a lux­ury ho­tel, but ev­ery­thing that sea­son still felt pro­vi­sional. Af­ter I closed the store, I'd some­times walk through the T tun­nel un­der the square where Mr. Butch sang to him­self and asked me for a dol­lar, then up to the BU dorm where Ben lived, or I'd meet Ben at Planet Records to flip through the bins be­fore we ate a cou­ple of slices at Cap­tain Nemo's Pizza. Or some­times I'd trek out to Somerville to visit a friend who lived with some ac­tivist womyn in a rental they called the Harambe House and who, be­cause she knew I was broke, cooked me home fries with melted cheese and hot sauce, and brewed strong cin­na­mon cof­fee, and who yelled at me all fall for not wear­ing socks and warned me I'd get sick. But more of­ten I'd walk home alone—down Brook­line Av­enue, among groves of phrag­mites at the Fen­way, past the Is­abella Stewart Gard­ner Mu­seum, and up the hill from Brigham Cir­cle. Of­ten one or two men slept in the scrubby bushes be­tween Calumet Street and the park­ing lot of the sad shop­ping plaza I avoided ex­cept for the laun­dro­mat. I ate a lot of roasted acorn squash, for which I paid about nine­teen cents a pound, and corn­flakes from the cor­ner bodega with soy milk from Star Mar­ket. In the first days of De­cem­ber, my bosses, cit­ing slow sales, let me go. Jen came home for win­ter break and of­fi­cially broke up with me. I caught a bad cold that turned into strep throat, and spent a week or so hud­dled on my fu­ton, sleep­ing and wak­ing, shiv­er­ing and semi-hal­lu­ci­nat­ing on Sudafed and a 103-de­gree fever. I lost my voice. All the lo­cal schools held their fi­nal ex­ams, and for most of the month I saw no one. When I fi­nally left my sickbed for a hol­i­day party in a stu­dent apart­ment on the River­way, I stepped in, swathed in a scarf and prob­a­bly still con­ta­gious, and Ben greeted me, laugh­ing: “Lazarus!” But I didn't feel quite alive.

In Bos­ton, 1990 be­gan with the sui­cide of Charles Stu­art. Sev­eral months ear­lier, Stu­art had driven into my neigh­bor­hood, shot his preg­nant wife in the head and him­self in the stom­ach, then claimed they'd been car­jacked, robbed, and shot by a pis­tol-wield­ing black man—an ac­cu­sa­tion that prompted a mas­sive man­hunt for the imag­i­nary perp, in­clud­ing stop-and-frisk and public strip-search­ing of young African Amer­i­can men on Mis­sion Hill, and that man­gled the city's al­readys­tressed race re­la­tions. When his brother fi­nally re­vealed the truth to po­lice, Stu­art leaped from the Tobin Bridge. Two months later, in one of the world's largest, still-un­solved art heists, thieves dressed as cops stole a Ver­meer and three Rem­brandts, among other art­works, from the Gard­ner Mu­seum. Iraq's Au­gust in­va­sion of Kuwait, the re­sult­ing spike in oil prices, a hous­ing slump, and the im­mi­nent col­lapse of the sav­ings and loan in­dus­try all con­trib­uted to a re­ces­sion be­gin­ning in July, and one in four Bos­ton fam­i­lies with chil­dren lived at or be­low the fed­eral poverty line. The city had more mur­ders that year than any other in its history. And then, two weeks into 1991, Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm, the United States–led coali­tion's aerial as­sault on Bagh­dad, be­gan play­ing live on our tele­vi­sion screens. We were not the civil­ians be­ing bombed, our city was not trans­formed to night-vi­sion spec­ta­cle, and, but for CNN'S twenty-four-hour “break­ing news” and the sud­den pro­lif­er­a­tion of yel­low rib­bons, the war seemed dis­tant. Still, a few friends and I—all of us had been re­quired to register for the Se­lec­tive Ser­vice a year or two ear­lier—felt anx­ious about be­ing drafted, even as we marched to Gov­ern­ment Cen­ter in an anti-war protest. In the same note­books where I wrote my es­says for classes—literature as an Art (B+); In­tro­duc­tion to Black Literature (A-); Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Po­lit­i­cal Ideas (A-); Six Amer­i­can Writ­ers (A-); Women, Cul­ture, Iden­tity (A)—I wrote short sto­ries, in part to try to mit­i­gate my in­creas­ing dis­ap­point­ment in the world, my friends, and my­self, and in part to try to un­der­stand those dis­ap­point­ments. It felt eas­ier to put my en­er­gies into imag­ined sit­u­a­tions and char­ac­ters than to reach out to my friends, eas­ier to re­write sen­tences and fuss over de­tails than to make cold calls and find a new job. Be­ing a writer had al­ways seemed a se­ri­ous and worth­while am­bi­tion, and one I'd held for years, but now that I took mostly English cour­ses—not car­ing about dis­tri­bu­tion re­quire­ments, given my plans to trans­fer—some of my pro­fes­sors val­orized it. And if I fan­cied my­self a writer, I could in­su­late my­self from the world—turn the world into some­thing to be ob­served, some­thing to com­ment upon, some­thing that af­fected other peo­ple more than it af­fected me, the de­tached ob­server.

But I've never been skilled at de­tach­ment. I'd con­vinced my­self, in the short, dark win­ter days of my nine­teenth year, that a woman I'd known for six months was key to my hap­pi­ness, and in her abrupt, un­ex­pected ab­sence, my

other friends and my so­cial life no longer gave me much plea­sure. I'd un­der­gone other breakups be­fore Jen—some I'd ini­ti­ated, some I hadn't—but this one felt dif­fer­ent, and there was no de­tach­ing my­self from it. I took long, soli­tary, scowl­ing walks through Bos­ton and Brook­line feel­ing sorry for my­self, and for the world, and lis­ten­ing to tapes of Cocteau Twins—whose mu­sic had sounded beau­ti­ful and mys­te­ri­ous when Jen and I lis­tened to it that sum­mer, but which now sounded dole­ful, for­lorn, har­rowed. As I mud­dled out of ado­les­cence and into adult­hood, lit­tle com­forted me, and mu­sic that sounded as es­tranged from the world as I felt only un­der­scored this fact. I met Jen around the time Rachel sent me her post­card de­clin­ing to sub­mit to my planned 'zine. Ben knew Jen from work, and for some rea­son he be­gan plot­ting that the three of us have a mid­night pic­nic. I sug­gested the wide, empty fields sur­round­ing the re­gional air­port on the hills west of town. On the misty night we chose, I drove us out to the sub­urb where Jen lived, then up be­hind the air­port, and parked on the rut­ted road­side. We walked to­ward the run­way and spread a blan­ket in the patchy grass. One of us had brought pita bread and tabouli—the kind made by pour­ing boiling wa­ter over a small box of bul­gur wheat and a “spice sack” of de­hy­drated gar­lic and mint. Some­one else had brought na­tive straw­ber­ries. We'd ei­ther been un­able to ac­quire wine or con­vinced we didn't need it. We sat in over­grown grass for a few hours, talk­ing and lis­ten­ing to a Cocteau Twins cas­sette on a small boombox. Light winds blew scraps of fog around. The con­trol tower spun a blind­ing white beam across us ev­ery thirty sec­onds, and blue-and-white land­ing strip lights glowed a quar­ter mile away. Ben's idea was cool and so­phis­ti­cated, even if it was hard to feel cool and so­phis­ti­cated while sit­ting in a dewy field with mint flakes and straw­berry seeds in my teeth. If I liked Gar­lands and Head Over Heels be­cause they sounded so bummed out, I also liked them be­cause most of the songs on these records seem to con­cern love and sex, es­pe­cially com­pli­cated, fraught, over­wrought love and sex—i.e., a nine­teen-year-old's ver­sion of love and sex—as sug­gested by songs ti­tled “My Love Paramour,” “The Tin­der­box (Of a Heart),” “Blood Bitch,” “Grail Over­floweth,” “Dear Heart,” “Wax and Wane.” Gar­lands even in­cluded a few brief lyrics on the back of the sleeve, so I could read bits of what Fraser sings: “Grail over­floweth there is rain / And there's saliva and there's you,” or “My mouthing at you / My tongue the stake / I should welt should I hold you / I should gash should I kiss you.”

On the record that fol­lowed these two, the song ti­tles ref­er­enced mythic fig­ures—“perse­phone,” “Beatrix,” “Pan­dora.” A trio of EPS fol­lowed a year later,

in 1985, with songs ti­tled af­ter but­ter­flies, col­ors, an elab­o­rate art style, a bird, and ar­chaic Scot­tish col­lo­qui­alisms. The next record's ti­tles ap­pear to ref­er­ence Antarc­tica. I could con­tinue. Each pass­ing LP seemed less earthy, less rooted in a mood of gloomy sex un­til, in 1993, dis­cussing P. J. Har­vey with Melody Maker, Fraser ad­mit­ted that Har­vey “goes on about sex a lot, which is another sub­ject I don't par­tic­u­larly want to tackle.”

De­spite all the men­tions of blood and saliva and things that “over­floweth” in those early songs, and de­spite an al­bum ti­tle in­vok­ing a state of un­con­trol­lable feel­ings, Cocteau Twins' mu­sic seemed chaste, a lit­tle re­pressed, their take on sex not en­tirely plea­sur­able. That is, their blurry songs made sex as mud­dled and raw as it some­times felt for young peo­ple who—as was true of me—maybe weren't as know­ing as they wanted to be­lieve. Cocteau Twins' mu­sic deals with head, not body—or maybe with the head get­ting in the way of the body's urges. Af­ter the mid­night pic­nic, Jen and I saw each other as of­ten as we could in the few weeks re­main­ing be­fore she left for Bard and I left for Bos­ton. Our dates—though we would never have called them that: in fact, we dis­dained the “def­i­ni­tions” im­posed by such words as “boyfriend” or “girl­friend” so much that even the short­hand of re­fer­ring to her in that way here seems wrong—took place in other night­time fields, or twenty-four-hour din­ers, or art cine­mas.

At the very end of sum­mer, on a day that felt like fall, I took the bus from Bos­ton to my home­town, bor­rowed my mother's car, and drove to Bard, ar­riv­ing in late af­ter­noon. I was due back at work the next day. Jen and I ate din­ner in Red Hook, then walked around Blithe­wood Man­sion and its gar­dens, watched trains roll north along the cause­way across Tivoli Bays as the sun slipped be­hind the Catskills, and went up to her dorm room and made out all night while her copy of Blue Bell Knoll, Cocteau Twins' 1988 al­bum, played on re­peat: the sad­but-brac­ing chord pro­gres­sion of “The Itchy Glowbo Blow” is for­ever bound up in my mem­o­ries of this night.

Blue Bell Knoll was the first Cocteau Twins record re­leased do­mes­ti­cally in the US, the first one to ap­pear here on a la­bel other than 4ad. Since the term “im­port” in those days con­noted far more than sim­ply a record man­u­fac­tured and re­leased abroad, it didn't sur­prise me that this LP sounded pop­pier and more pol­ished than pre­vi­ous Cocteau Twins records, nor that a video soon ap­peared on MTV. I hated a bunch of the songs on the LP, hated the pre­cious­ness of ti­tles such as “For Phoebe Still a Baby” and “A Kissed-out Red Float­boat,” hated much of the record's pret­tier, hap­pier mu­sic. But in the ten­sions be­tween Liz Fraser's multi-tracked vo­cals, Robin Guthrie's de­scend­ing guitar chords, and Si­mon Ray­monde's melodic bass, “The Itchy Glowbo Blow”—slick pro­duc­tion and an­noy­ing ti­tle aside—con­tained all the plain­tive, lone­some yearn­ing I'd al­ways as­so­ci­ated with Cocteau Twins. I have no idea what Fraser is singing about, but the song sounds si­mul­ta­ne­ously breath­less, ex­u­ber­ant, and dev­as­tated—pretty

Joshua Har­mon

much how I felt by the end of that night I hadn't wanted to end. De­pressed, faith­less, be­trayed even by our own cig­a­rette smoke: my friends and I had all mas­tered the self-dra­matic literature of our own dis­ap­point­ments. Noth­ing ever went the way we hoped or de­sired—or, if it briefly did, we knew it wouldn't last and had al­ready re­signed our­selves to in­evitable fail­ure. I cat­a­logued my defeats in my jour­nals—didn't ev­ery se­ri­ous writer keep a jour­nal?—and imag­ine many of my friends did as well. Kafka noted, in his own Di­aries, “Have never un­der­stood how it is pos­si­ble for al­most ev­ery­one who writes to ob­jec­tify his suf­fer­ings in the very midst of un­der­go­ing them”—but I cer­tainly never shared his cu­rios­ity on this point. What was the point of writ­ing if not to ob­jec­tify—and am­plify—my suf­fer­ings? To con­tem­plate end­lessly the sort of “per­sonal feel­ings + chang­ing at­ti­tudes” Rachel had men­tioned on her post­card? Jen and I hadn't slept that night at Bard. I left at dawn. My mother's house was nearly three hours away, and af­ter I dropped her car in her drive­way, I'd still have to walk a mile or two to the bus sta­tion, catch the ten o'clock bus to Bos­ton, and be at work by noon. The sun rose be­hind clouds as I drove along the Ta­conic State Park­way, and I cranked down the win­dow for the un­sea­son­ably chilly air. Adren­a­line kept me go­ing for a while, but as I crossed the Con­necti­cut River, the Mass Pike seemed to roll straight and nearly flat to­ward the hori­zon, and there were still few other cars on the road, and my ad­dled brain de­cided that it'd be okay if I rested my eyes for just a sec­ond: I snapped awake to the sound of ra­di­als on rum­ble strip at sixty-some miles an hour, and stayed awake, hands white-knuck­led on the wheel, the rest of the way.

At my mother's house, I ate some ce­real, then shoul­dered my back­pack and headed down Chan­dler Street. Rain be­gan to fall. Wait­ing for a light to change, I saw a boy with a hand on one knee in a sprinter's stance across the in­ter­sec­tion, then looked away for a sec­ond, heard a quick aw­ful thump, and turned back to see the boy hop­ping back to the curb on one leg as blood poured from the other. I dropped my back­pack and ran over to him. Another man al­ready knelt at the boy's side. I di­aled 911 on a pay phone, told the op­er­a­tor to send an am­bu­lance, then ran into the CVS at that cor­ner and grabbed a pack of Hug­gies while shout­ing, “A boy's been hit!” Out­side, I held di­a­pers to the boy's skinny leg as they slowly filled with blood and rain. The man gripped the boy's shoul­ders. He asked the boy ques­tions: how old he was, where he went to school. “Keep the pres­sure on,” the man told me, “he's go­ing into shock.” On­look­ers cir­cled us. Blood blotched wet pave­ment. The boy's tibia and fibula poked through his skin. He screamed and screamed, but all I heard was the calm man: “Shhh,” he said. “It's go­ing to be all right. It's go­ing to be all right.”

A few weeks into the spring 1991 se­mes­ter, af­ter fail­ing to find work, I left Bos­ton and moved back to my mother's house—pen­ni­less, job­less, apart­ment­less, girl­friend­less. I felt ready to be­gin a decade of seclu­sion up­stairs in her house, as Nathaniel Hawthorne had done at his own mother's house. “Here I sit in my old ac­cus­tomed cham­ber, where I used to sit in days gone by,” he wrote in his Amer­i­can Note-books, in a pas­sage that, but for its el­e­gance and self-aware­ness, might as well have come from the jour­nal I kept, 1990–91:

If ever I should have a bi­og­ra­pher, he ought to make great men­tion of this cham­ber in my mem­oirs, be­cause so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and char­ac­ter were formed; and here I have been glad and hope­ful, and here I have been de­spon­dent. And here I sat a long, long time, wait­ing pa­tiently for the world to know me, and some­times won­der­ing why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all,—at least, till I were in my grave. And some­times it seemed as if I were al­ready in the grave, with only life enough to be chilled and be­numbed.

I'd just read Hawthorne's short sto­ries for an Amer­i­can literature course at Umass Bos­ton. I now rode the Peter Pan bus an hour each way for my spring se­mes­ter classes. In their after­life—or maybe even by 1990, when they'd es­sen­tially turned into their own cover band, their sound im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able and no longer chal­leng­ing or chang­ing—cocteau Twins be­came a kind of short­hand. Most bands who stick around long enough, or who have a dis­tinc­tive enough sound or ethos—as Cocteau Twins did—be­come short­hand for some­thing, but to in­voke the Cocteau Twins' name sum­moned would-be artsi­ness in its most piti­ful forms: in­de­pen­dent-book­store-sound­track; pony­tailed­se­ri­ous- guy- who- seems- re­ally- sen­si­tive- but- has- re­pressed- rage- is­sues; just-out-of-col­lege-film-ma­jors-with-fisher-price-pix­elvi­sion-cam­eras-and-so­cialanx­i­eties; all-black-clothes-and-dyed-black-hair-and-black-boots-and-black­lip­stick-kids; can­dles-and-crys­tals-and-red-wine-new-agey-fop­pery. The even­tual ac­cu­racy with which the sig­ni­fier “Cocteau Twins” iden­ti­fied such things re­duced—for me, at least—an in­trigu­ing, orig­i­nal band to the same­ness of its least in­trigu­ing, least orig­i­nal fol­low­ers. I don't know that Cocteau Twins were ever in­ter­ested in record­ing “ethe­real,” “oth­er­worldly” sound­scapes, though that was the eas­i­est way to cat­e­go­rize the mu­sic they made, mu­sic that seemed pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able to most peo­ple I knew the first time we heard it. Is it Cocteau Twins' fault that by pur­su­ing the spe­cific sounds they imag­ined, their songs started to sound too much the same, to blend into one long aria?

Re­gard­less, their mu­sic came to seem easy the­atrics, man­u­fac­tured

at­mos­phere, will­ful ob­scu­ran­tism—so much so that, by the af­ter­noon when I skipped In­tro­duc­tion to Cul­tural An­thro­pol­ogy (B-) with a friend from Umass Bos­ton and took the T to Har­vard Square to buy what would be my last Cocteau Twins record, Heaven or Las Ve­gas, on the day of its re­lease, the al­bum mostly sounded like a col­lec­tion of learned, empty ges­tures. That ti­tle sug­gests some self-aware­ness that even their—our—spir­i­tual am­bi­tions were pos­si­bly just cheap glitz, and Fraser's lyrics be­came more dis­cernibly English: phrases such as “a young girl's dreams” or “I only want to love you” were sud­denly both tough to miss and seem­ingly aimed at giv­ing lis­ten­ers ex­actly what they ex­pected from a Cocteau Twins record.

I failed to con­sider how my own strug­gles to at least learn the empty ges­tures of ma­tu­rity be­fore I re­jected them had re­turned me to my mother's house, as if to try the les­son again. Rather than study, I kept dream­ing along to my dreamy mu­sic. The world dis­ap­pointed me be­cause I wasn't ma­ture enough to try to un­der­stand its in­tri­ca­cies and sys­tems—or be­cause it didn't ex­ist in the pre­cise forms I wished it would, or be­cause I didn't un­der­stand what it ex­pected of me—so I es­caped be­tween a pair of head­phones and in the pages of my notebook, be­liev­ing my­self far more dis­crim­i­nat­ing than the kids wear­ing all black when I, too, il­lus­trated a set of clichés. When the am­bu­lance and the po­lice came, one cop pulled aside the man who'd held the boy, and another cop put me into the cruiser. I sat in the back seat while he took notes. “Did it look like she was speed­ing?” he asked. Rain tapped the me­tal roof. I watched the paramedics kneel­ing be­side the boy, and then the boy's mother ar­rived, jump­ing out of her car and leav­ing the door hang­ing open as she ran to him. I had to wait for the cop to let me out of the cruiser: the back door had no han­dle on the in­side. Soon the am­bu­lance pulled away, lights spin­ning across glass store­fronts, and cleared traf­fic with a few short bursts of the siren. The crowd started to leave, and one of the cops picked up the sod­den di­a­pers. Traf­fic edged around the car that had hit the boy—one tire against the curb, blinker flash­ing, a dent in its fen­der.

I walked to where I had thrown my back­pack, and saw for the first time that dried blood browned my palms and wrists, streaked my arms to my el­bows. I lifted my bag to my shoul­der and kept walk­ing, hold­ing my hands away from my body, won­der­ing if I'd still catch my bus. Then I squat­ted on the side­walk, tore wet leaves from some bushes that grew be­hind a chain-link fence, and wiped the boy's blood off my skin. My fa­vorite story at the time, Car­son Mccullers's “A Tree • A Rock • A Cloud,” de­scribes a man who claims that af­ter be­ing “a man who had never loved,” he's

now made love a “science” and can feel im­me­di­ate love for any­thing, and whose near-mono­logue to a boy he meets in an all-night diner, though ap­par­ently deep with feel­ing, of­fers such a per­for­mance that the owner of the diner kicks him out in dis­gust—pre­sum­ably at hav­ing heard it be­fore. My anx­ious per­son­al­ity, c. 1990–91, con­sisted of a set of care­fully cu­rated ex­pe­ri­ences I'd hap­pily share with any­one who'd lis­ten. My con­nec­tions with friends and girl­friends felt in­tense, but, too of­ten, I'd have another con­fi­dant a few months later. Mccullers's story spoke mostly to my fond­ness for din­ers and ec­centrics—both of which filled my home­town—but, though I didn't re­al­ize it then, I too fool­ishly be­lieved I could love any­one with min­i­mal ef­fort. I may have loved the idea of Jen more than the re­al­ity of Jen her­self, and when I grieved her ab­sence I may have been griev­ing the loss of a cer­tain idea of my­self: the se­ri­ous, so­phis­ti­cated, am­bi­tious young writer who lis­tened to se­ri­ous, so­phis­ti­cated mu­sic, and who had a se­ri­ous, so­phis­ti­cated, smart, lovely girl­friend. Over Oc­to­ber break, Jen and I took a train from Rhinecliff to Mon­treal, stayed in a pen­sion, saw a Derek Jar­man film, ate crois­sants, and wan­dered Mount Royal Park and the Mcgill ghetto for a few freez­ing days. Then I left her at Bard and headed back to Bos­ton—where, on con­sec­u­tive days in mid-novem­ber, Cocteau Twins and their even darker, more dra­matic 4ad la­bel-mates Dead Can Dance were sched­uled to play: I'd bought us tick­ets to both sold-out shows, and she would come stay with me that week­end.

She did come, and though that week­end should have been some sort of cel­e­bra­tory pin­na­cle of our re­la­tion­ship, it felt dis­or­dered, strained. Jen had never re­ally writ­ten back to my week-long mail bar­rage, and I felt she'd ar­rived in Bos­ton al­most out of obli­ga­tion. I re­tain only frag­men­tary mem­o­ries of her visit: how dis­ap­point­ing Cocteau Twins were live, even with—or be­cause of—a pair of ad­di­tional gui­tarists as stage lights swirled through dry-ice fog in­side the Or­pheum; the solemn ver­sion of “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” that Bren­dan Perry of Dead Can Dance in­toned in the Berklee Per­for­mance Cen­ter, and the fu­ri­ous me­dieval drum­ming encore the en­tire band per­formed; Jen clos­ing her eyes and slump­ing her head against my shoul­der as we rode the E-line back to Brigham Cir­cle and I watched our re­flec­tions flicker in the smudged glass across the al­most empty train. Back home the fol­low­ing spring, I found a part-time job at a small in­de­pen­dent book­store that man­aged de­cent sales fig­ures mov­ing chil­dren's books to sub­ur­ban par­ents, but whose own­ers would soon, in a burst of early-1990s print cul­ture op­ti­mism, move to a big­ger space, ex­pand, and then go out of busi­ness. Jen and I tried to main­tain a friend­ship—she seemed de­pressed, too, and spent a fair

num­ber of week­ends at home—but I was too wounded and she too with­drawn for any­thing more than the oc­ca­sional awk­ward en­counter. On the bus I took to and from Bos­ton for classes, I sat near the back and steadily worked through the 555 pages of Flan­nery O'con­nor's Com­plete Sto­ries, which my friend Tia had given me as a birth­day present. Amid so many un­com­fort­able sto­ries about in­tel­li­gent but un­wise and emo­tion­ally im­ma­ture or oth­er­wise de­vel­op­men­tally stunted adult chil­dren liv­ing at home with their moth­ers, I paused, in “The Com­forts of Home,” on the phrase “small tragic spearmint-fla­vored sighs.” The name of my 'zine, I de­cided, would be Tiny Spearmint Sighs— maybe I bor­rowed the word “tiny” from the ti­tle of Cocteau Twins' Tiny Dy­namine EP. Ac­cord­ing to my jour­nal (March 7), “Ben said the name Tiny Spearmint Sighs is ‘quirky + sad' + that that's how I al­ways am, or at least how I al­ways ti­tle things.”

De­spite my calls for sub­mis­sions, Tiny Spearmint Sighs be­came a mono­graph, with an in­frared photo of me my friend Jamie had shot as I waved a sparkler in the dark out­side his mother's con­do­minium: a curved streak of light not un­like that on the cover of Heaven or Las Ve­gas, though with my face half-vis­i­ble be­hind it. In one short story, three friends light a bon­fire in a field, at which they burn var­i­ous for­merly prized pos­ses­sions with un­wel­come mem­o­ries at­tached to them (one char­ac­ter burns her jour­nal: “[R]eread­ing it all made her even sad­der than she re­mem­bered be­ing then so she just shut the book with­out read­ing any­thing else”). In another—a knock­off of Mccullers's “A Tree • A Rock • A Cloud” set in the bus ter­mi­nal at Bos­ton's South Sta­tion in­stead of an all-night diner—a young woman lights “Marl­boro Reds one af­ter the other, not re­ally in­hal­ing but blow­ing a lot of smoke around,” and re­ceives in­struc­tions from a man wait­ing there on how she might make her dreams come true. In another, a young cou­ple shar­ing an apart­ment has a tense con­ver­sa­tion “punc­tu­ated oc­ca­sion­ally by crack­les of static” from the stereo in the si­lence af­ter Talk­ing Heads: 77 has fin­ished play­ing: “Why wouldn't he just go back to his fuck­ing soup?” one char­ac­ter won­ders as they ar­gue. An art­less, talky poem fea­tures an as­ton­ish­ing lack of en­jamb­ment. The ti­tles of these pieces—“red­dish,” “Cup Your Hands to Catch the Rain,” “Wash My Face,” “How to Melt the Sky”— might have been Cocteau Twins song ti­tles, which I'm sure I in­tended: all of my near-pla­gia­risms, I prob­a­bly hoped, would ally my writ­ing, and my­self, with some­thing or some­one al­ready ac­claimed, note­wor­thy, val­ued.

I pho­to­copied and hand-num­bered one hun­dred copies of Tiny Spearmint Sighs, most of which I never both­ered to sta­ple or give away. Like O'con­nor's char­ac­ter Thomas in “The Com­forts of Home,” who fancies him­self a scholar be­cause “[h]e's pres­i­dent of the lo­cal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety this year,” my self-im­por­tant literary am­bi­tions far out­stripped my ef­forts—still another fact I did not yet re­al­ize. Maybe Cocteau Twins and the rest of the mu­sic 4ad re­leased in the '80s en­cour­aged such self-im­por­tance, be­cause of how

se­ri­ously it all seemed to take it­self. Or maybe self-im­por­tant peo­ple grav­i­tated to such mu­sic be­cause it con­firmed our ideas of our­selves. Reread­ing my old jour­nal now, I can­not an­swer such con­jec­tures. Nor can I rec­og­nize much of my­self in the young man who felt the need to chron­i­cle so minutely his ev­er­chang­ing moods, and who had such a misun­der­stand­ing of the word “sur­real,” and who ap­par­ently lis­tened to the blown-apart cover ver­sion of Van Mor­ri­son's “Come Here My Love” recorded by This Mor­tal Coil be­fore writ­ing—un-self­con­sciously? en­tirely self-con­sciously? im­pos­si­ble, now, to tell—the fol­low­ing:

21 Jan­uary 1991. 2:09 pm. It snowed again last night. The blan­kets were all over the place when I woke up. Last night I went with Joanna, Meredyth, and Francesca to Denny's where I also saw Jamie. Jen hadn't wanted to go. What a sur­prise. I keep al­most-but-not-quite cry­ing. My in­sides are churn­ing. And now I'm lis­ten­ing to This Mor­tal Coil and all I can think of is Jen­nifer M.'s lon­gago com­ment that she doesn't like this mu­sic be­cause of fif­teen-year-old death rock­ers from the sub­urbs who lis­ten to it and feel de­pressed. (“This melan­choly feel­ing just don't do no good.”)

22 Jan—early hrs. Af­ter the last en­try I spoke with Jen and then lay on the couch for sev­eral hours as it grew dark. Then I ag­o­nized over whether to call her again or just end ev­ery­thing with us or go out walk­ing or what. Even­tu­ally I did call + ended up go­ing out with her. We went to a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts where one man was read­ing the Bos­ton Her­ald + one nice but bored-look­ing woman was work­ing. We got cho­co­late crois­sants and cof­fee and sat in the cor­ner and talked about “us” (how cheesy). The ra­dio was play­ing “Lovesongs af­ter Dark” (and I quote) which in­cluded Fleet­wood Mac, Julee Cruise, Ge­orge Michael, Donna Sum­mer, et al. Jen did re­as­sure me though and I feel much hap­pier. It was such a cool scene too—truck­ers and creepy-look­ing men kept com­ing in for cof­fee and sand­wiches, the woman at the counter was look­ing so bored read­ing, us sit­ting talk­ing, sugar flakes on Jen's lip + us ask­ing each other if we had cho­co­late on our teeth. It was so sur­real; some­time I'll have to work it into a story. Jen hugged me good­bye. Af­ter I left I drove to the field of the by-now-leg­endary mid­night pic­nic, lis­tened to Cocteaus, “Kook­aburra.” I sup­pose tak­ing one­self se­ri­ously con­sti­tutes nec­es­sary train­ing for be­com­ing a writer—and cer­tainly no one else would take my work se­ri­ously un­til I'd im­proved it. The re­as­sur­ance I sought from Jen—that she still liked me, even if we could barely man­age to en­dure each other's com­pany?—was no dif­fer­ent than the re­as­sur­ance I sought in writ­ing: I wanted to know that my thoughts, my ideas, my imag­i­na­tion weren't worth­less. Dur­ing those months, they felt about all I could claim—so even as I re­called my sad­ness, I con­tem­plated its literary value; even af­ter a re­la­tion­ship had ended, I wanted to be­lieve I could con­trol that end­ing.

Mean­while, I fin­ished ev­ery one of O'con­nor's short sto­ries on the bus, then be­gan Light in Au­gust. I listed writ­ers' names in my jour­nal, plan­ning to read them, although twenty-some years later I still have read very lit­tle Yukio

Mishima, Doris Less­ing, and Thomas Mann. I bought Lolita, Mrs. Dal­loway, and the col­lected sto­ries of both Dy­lan Thomas and Car­son Mccullers at the book­store with my em­ployee dis­count. I first read “Wake­field” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and I can still hear my pro­fes­sor laugh­ing while he read to us the sen­tence about Nip­pers putting blot­ting pa­per be­neath the legs of his desk to level it. I wrote un­in­ten­tional im­i­ta­tions of the writ­ers I en­coun­tered in my classes—faulkner, Del­more Schwartz, Con­rad Aiken, Kather­ine Anne Porter, Ernest J. Gaines. But the im­i­ta­tions soon ceased to sat­isfy: I wanted my sen­tences and my sto­ries to sound dis­tinc­tive.

In my jour­nal, I noted how “hurt” ( Jan­uary 15) and “ex­cru­ci­at­ingly de­pressed” ( Jan­uary 19) and “com­pletely drained” (Fe­bru­ary 8) and “be­trayed” (Fe­bru­ary 23) and “heart­bro­ken” (March 4) I felt, even as I recorded my flir­ta­tions with another friend I'd soon start see­ing. I also noted my trans­fer ap­pli­ca­tion to a small col­lege in Ver­mont: in Au­gust, I'd show up there with way too many LPS, too big a stereo, and a box of books, and gain ad­mis­sion to the fic­tion work­shop by sub­mit­ting yet another story set in a twenty-four-hour diner: the be­gin­ning of writ­ing se­ri­ously, and hav­ing my writ­ing taken se­ri­ously.

On an early spring night, I drove my old Subaru to Bos­ton and parked just off Comm Ave, a mile west of Ken­more Square. Cocteau Twins were play­ing at Bos­ton Univer­sity's Wal­ter Brown Arena, and Ben had got­ten us tick­ets. The BU hockey team's sea­son had just ended with a triple-overtime loss in the na­tional cham­pi­onship, and the arena was still re­frig­er­a­tor cold, the ice cov­ered with lumpy lay­ers of heavy gym mats so we could walk on it. By the end of the show my feet felt frozen. As they'd done in Novem­ber, Cocteau Twins shrouded them­selves in chem­i­cal smoke and daz­zled the crowd with col­ored lights to com­pen­sate for their bor­ing per­for­mance: framed by tall racks of blink­ing elec­tronic gear, they stood in place, sway­ing from foot to foot and cradling gui­tars and bass with se­ri­ous, in­tense ef­fort. Maybe they felt tired, or hun­gover—their tour ended here—but in any case I al­ready had more in­ter­est in Galaxie 500 (a band that, in­ci­den­tally, broke up the next night).

By April, I no longer wrote in my jour­nal—in­stead of doc­u­ment­ing my com­plaints, I'd started writ­ing a novella. On May 2, be­gin­ning with Light in Au­gust, I listed the books I'd been read­ing: Their Eyes Were Watch­ing God, The Bal­lad of the Sad Café, The Op­ti­mist’s Daugh­ter, Dublin­ers, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Book of Laugh­ter and For­get­ting— a record I kept for sev­eral more years, fill­ing many pages in tiny hand­writ­ing. The next en­try ( June 26) con­sists of another long list, headed “books to get,” and then, af­ter a few blank pages, I wrote down some fur­ther ideas for re­vis­ing the novella (Au­gust 3), and the track lists for a few mix­tapes I gave to friends that sum­mer. Cocteau Twins did not ap­pear on any of these tapes: I still lis­tened to their LPS, if not nearly as of­ten as pre­vi­ously, un­til my in­ter­est in all the in­tense drama of 4ad's se­ri­ous­ness soon faded.

As I left the hockey arena that cool spring night amid a swarm of stu­dents, in what would have been, had I not taken a year off af­ter high school, the end

of my sopho­more year of col­lege, I could not have told you that the word so­phis­ti­ca­tion de­rives from the Greek sophos, wis­dom. Nor could I have told you that the Greek sophists were orig­i­nally con­sid­ered truth-seek­ers and lovers of wis­dom, be­fore that term ac­quired pe­jo­ra­tive con­no­ta­tions. And though I could have told you that wis­dom is of­ten linked to age and ex­pe­ri­ence, I re­mained the same awk­ward kid—nei­ther worldly nor re­fined, though at least I'd been work­ing on my cul­tural knowl­edge, in classes and out­side of them, as my earnest lists demon­strate. Mu­sic and literature—the ob­scurer the bet­ter—might at least lend me the ap­pear­ance of so­phis­ti­ca­tion to those who didn't re­ally know me yet, even if I still knew the truth. How much of so­phis­ti­ca­tion is ever more than an elab­o­rate show of fog and light to dis­guise our vul­ner­a­ble, sopho­moric selves?

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