The Itchy Glowbo Blues
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.
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
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
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?