I was fourteen. I was an alternative rock goddess. I’d found Nirvana. I was in love with a dead man.
I sat with my brother Randy, my neighbors and my friend Lissa from blind camp in the very back of the backyard on pink plastic chairs. “So, which would you rather do?” said Ryan from across the street, turning to me. We were playing Questions. “Have sex with Kurt Cobain for one hour, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam for ten hours, or the guy from Silverchair for twenty hours?”
I was a loyal girl. “Kurt,” I answered without a thought. “Okay, Lissa. If you were going out with a guy and he wanted to 69, would you do it?”
“What’s that?” she asked.
Everyone else in the circle was younger, and except for Lissa, they were all boys. I knew these dirty things because I listened to Love Phones, a late-night radio sex advice program. “It’s like when you do oral sex at the same time.”
“I don’t get it.” Lissa got a half-sheepish, half-impish look on her face.
“Okay, think of the number,” I told her.
I laid out one of my hands flat. “So, this is the guy laying this way.” I laid my other hand on top, facing the other direction. “And this is the girl. She’s giving the guy a blowjob and he’s going down on her. At the same time.”
“Ewww, no,” she said.
“I bet it’d be hot,” I said, feeling all gooey inside. “I mean, I wouldn’t do anything until I was way older and madly in love, but I bet you’d have a million orgasms.” The neighbors and my brother stared at me and I blushed.
“You’d do that with Kurt,” said Ryan.
“Well, that’d be called necrophilia.”
It was Lissa’s turn. “Randy, have you ever farted in school?”
“I fart in your general direction!” he answered, quoting Monty Python, a movie he loved but I had never watched.
“Oh my God you guys, that reminds me,” I jumped back in. “Did you know that if a woman like, farts from her vagina, it’s called a vart? That’s what Dr. Judy says.” I almost got up and twirled in my chair. After music, sex was the most fun and hilarious and disgusting and amazing topic to talk about. I loved being the girl who knew all about it, the girl who my brother and our neighbors told all the dirty jokes to, the girl who found innuendos in everything and laughed at it like another member of Beavis and Butthead. I wasn’t at all like other, proper girls in my grade. I didn’t even care that no one talked to me at school. I had a real identity unlike all the fake poseurs, and I didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought anymore. My wonderfully raunchy sex knowledge was sort of like knowing every band and all the members and every song and all the lyrics. It made me feel like a rock star. “You guys should call me Dr. Emilia.”
We went a few more rounds of questions then went into our garage to listen to music. We turned on X107. They played all the best bands: Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Alice in Chains. Those songs had something I’d always wanted from music, a scream, a pure outpouring of all the angst and hurt and anguish. The songs were my way to express all the raw feelings raging inside me. I felt like I wasn’t so absolutely alone in the world, and that was comforting.
We sat on my parents’ old, multi-colored, plaid patterned furniture and talked about every song that came on. We discussed the meanings, argued about which bands rocked and which ones sucked and dissected lyrics. Music was my salvation and I worshiped by singing along. Nirvana’s “Lithium” started up. I sang from even deeper in my gut. “I’m so ugly, that’s okay ‘cause so are you.” I was just so glad there was someone else out there, or used to be, who didn’t care about being pretty. It ruled. I launched into the chorus, “I miss you, I’m not gonna crack…”
“Let’s jump into the bushes again,” said Ryan, “and pretend we’re crowdsurfing.”
We went to the front of the house with a row of bushes underneath the windowsill. The guys looked through the window to make sure Mom and Dad weren’t looking. I rallied myself as Ryan counted down from five. I was on stage, rocking out, singing my soul into a microphone.
I hurled myself towards the bushes and landed with arms and legs and stomach on bristles and branches like a rock star landing in a crowd. I felt no pain. Music made me invincible.
Lissa’s dad came to pick her up in his pink car. The neighbors headed home and Randy went inside. I stayed out for a little longer, wandered back to the plastic chairs, on the edge of our woods and gazed at the sky. It was dark out and I had this swelling feeling like there were other dimensions, pictures in my mind like memories of an ancient world, and the sense that if I just let myself go I could touch intangible mystery. Music connected me to this big feeling, to myself. I didn’t know how I would survive my life if it wasn’t for rock music. Mom called me inside.
I was supposed to shower at night, so I got a book and went into the upstairs bathroom. After ten minutes, I actually got undressed, just in case someone knocked on the door and I had to jump into the bathtub and answer from there. I had almost a woman’s body. I didn’t want to be naked there, in bright light. I only liked to scratch or touch or explore myself in two-second stints under my covers with the lights off and my clothes still on. I sat on the toilet and lost myself in the tragic otherworldly love stories of Christopher Pike.
After two chapters, I looked up. It had been twenty-five minutes since I turned the water on. I got up off the toilet and got a cloth, held it under the hot water, rubbed soap on it and hung it on the side of the tub, hard evidence that I really washed. If I didn’t do this, Dad would ask why the bathroom didn’t smell like Dove or Ivory. His favorite game was taking away all the soap before Randy or I came in to shower, to see if we’d ask for it, a pop quiz to see if we were clean. I turned off the water, got dressed in my same clothes, wrapped a towel around my dry head and walked to my room. Once there, I stayed up late listening to New York’s sex problems on Love Phones and taking notes.
In the morning, I got up and changed my shirt. I didn’t bother to brush my hair or put on deodorant. I was late for breakfast, again. Randy was already eating. “That’s it,” Mom said in a chilly voice as I put a bagel in the toaster. “No music for a week.” Her favorite punishment.
“But Mom, it’s my lifeline! I need to have music.”
“Then come downstairs on time from now on,” Dad said as he finished his breakfast. He said it so cheerfully, like it could make everything better and upbeat again, like this wasn’t a new, more subtle form of murder.
I growled as I ate my bagel. I had never been so much as a second late for school.
In school, without Randy and the neighbors who were still in junior high, I was quiet. I went to my honors classes and doodled lyrics on notebook covers. I had no chance with those fresh, clean kids. I identified better with rock stars who dropped out of school and shot heroin.
At lunch I sat by myself and tried to write song lyrics. I wrote songs about loneliness with dark imagery I hoped was original, material Kurt would love me for if he was still alive, words that came from a place only people who knew soul-crushing darkness could go.
I got interrupted when a crumpled up milk carton flew by my head and landed on the floor near my table. I was used to spitballs and nasty notes but the milk carton was new. I wondered if it was supposed to be a reference to my milk-white skin.
The lunch lady came over and asked me who did it. I didn’t know and didn’t want to admit that to her, remind someone that I couldn’t see, so I just mumbled that it wasn’t a big deal. After she went away, a boy from a nearby table came up to me. “Jeff wants you to ask him out,” he said. I had to try not to cry. I sort of liked Jeff but I was used to this routine. I shrugged at the boy and turned my head away. He ran back to the table and told them I was going to come over and ask Jeff out. All the boys screamed in horror, then laughed.
In the hallway between French and Geometry, a group of boys surrounded me. One of them kicked me and I almost tripped. The other boys laughed. Another boy stuck out his leg in front of me. I saw it in just enough time to avoid falling on my face. I kept my eyes down. A boy jumped out in front of me and yelled, “Watch out, brick wall!” I tried not to flinch. Someone tugged on my backpack. I jerked away and ran into the classroom.
After classes were over and I collected my books from my locker, I walked outside and crossed the huge field behind the high school by myself. I felt lost, in a good way, in looking at the distant trees to my left, at the field stretching out, at the clouds covering the endless sky. The darker days were easier on my light-sensitive eyes and pretty in their dreariness. There was something a little more misty and mysterious about a cloudy sky that I loved.
As I got to the end of the field, all my muscles involuntarily tightened all at once. A group of boys sat, smoking on tree stumps. I had to walk past them to get from the field to a tiny road I had to take to get home. The boys flicked their cigarettes in my direction. “It’s the freak again,” I heard one of them mutter. I kept walking, holding my body as rigid as possible as I passed between the stumps to the road.
I wished I could talk to those boys, tell them we weren’t that different. They were the stoners, the delinquents, the kids with fucked-up home lives, boys who would drop out of school, the outcasts. I knew from conversations I heard in hallways and classes that we listened to the same music. We were probably pretty similar on the inside. If we just got to know each other, I was sure we’d have a blast talking about the stupid, fake, popular kids and poseurs, talking about bands and songs and lyrics like I did with my neighbors, cursing, talking about sex and telling dirty jokes. I imagined us loitering in parking lots and felt that’s where I belonged. Except I didn’t because even to them, I was a freak.
A block later, a car slowed and pulled up beside me at the curb. “Albino bitch!” someone yelled out the window before they sped off. I wanted to die. I hated that word more than anything. It was the one thing I could never defend myself against, because it was true. I would always be albino.
At home with Mom still at work, Randy lent me his CD player since mine was taken away, and I stayed in my room listening to music. I wrote down snippets of lyrics I loved on notebook covers instead of doing homework. I only opened my door to tell Randy music news I heard on the radio and to discuss the story we were going to write about a fictitious Nirvana reunion. We hadn’t decided if Kurt was going to come back to life, or if we’d have the gathering in a made-up rock ‘n’ roll heaven. We did know it would be hilarious, because we’d use every little tidbit we knew about the band and its members, like the time that a guy who used to be their drummer got fired from a job because his boss found him talking to a lemon.
“Let’s play Kurt and Courtney,” I said to Randy. My eight-year-old sister June came out of her room and we told her if she wanted to play, she had to be their made-up dog, Fido. My old favorite doll would be their daughter. Randy went to his room and pretended to be Kurt at home writing songs and intermittently trying to commit suicide, while I was Courtney Love.
I pretended to pick up a phone by putting my thumb to my ear and my pinkie finger to my mouth. After making ringing noises, Randy made the same gesture, picking up the invisible phone. “Hi honey,” I said, mimicking the way Mom and Dad talked on the phone. “Did you write any new songs today?”
“Hold on a second, wife,” Randy said. “You interrupted me. I was just in the middle of doing something.” He made gunshot sounds in the background, as if he was trying to shoot himself, but missing.
“What’s that noise I hear?” I asked in a hysterical voice a little like Mom’s. “What’s going on there?”
“Oh nothing, Courtney. Nothing at all. The neighbor’s dog was just chasing Fido again.”
On hearing her name, June ran around Randy’s room, barking.
“Well okay then, Kurt,” I said. “As long as you’re not trying to kill yourself again.” I put on my best Butthead voice. “If you like die and stuff, I’ll kick your ass.”
We hung up our hand-phones and went back to our rooms, back to pretending to do homework. I listened to X107 and made up parodies of songs that were dirtier than the originals, more explicit about fucking. When I was done I slid the paper under Randy’s door. After a minute, he started laughing, and I knew I’d had a productive day. For the rest of the afternoon I listened to music and sang along. I thought about how last year in eighth grade I was afraid of going to high school, and Mom told me the kids would be more mature and accepting. So far, it hadn’t seemed to be true. They weren’t any better than they were in elementary school, but now, along with books and dreary days, I had music. It made me feel so alive, like I was totally in touch with my soul. I made sure to give Randy his CD player back before Mom got home.
“We got a call from the Vice Principal,” Mom said after dinner that night. “He said there was more bullying in the hallway.” In the living room, Mom and Dad sat on the loveseat and I slumped on the couch to listen.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, looking at my lap. I knew where this was going.
“He said he talked to a few of the people he routinely sees bother you and asked them why they did it. The answer they gave him is that they feel like you get special privileges. They told him they think you get good grades because teachers feel sorry for you, because of your disability.”
I sat up. This surprised me. My parents never thought my grades were good enough, and I always got comments on report cards that I wasn’t working to full ability and didn’t complete assignments on time. I wished I could show those boys these comments, and tell them I only got good grades because school was easy for me, and because I was afraid my parents would kill me if I didn’t.
“We still think it’d help if you made more of an effort to make friends,” Mom went on. She said this routinely since I was six years old. I glared. “You go to school looking like this.” She waved her hand in my direction. I had on a huge Nirvana t-shirt, big, comfortable jeans and sneakers with fluorescent yellow laces. My bangs hung long on my face, masking my emotions, just like all my favorite rockers. I felt so distinct and so passionately alive with the music I loved. I felt awesome. “We’d really like to see you dress more feminine, put more time into your appearance.”
I crossed my arms. I had tried. Every few months, I told myself I would be a more perfect daughter. I showered every day, took time to carefully do my hair, change my clothes, brush my teeth and put on deodorant, did all my homework immediately after school, tried not to be so into music or so obsessed with Kurt, followed my parents’ rules without arguing or talking back and pretended to be cheerful. I knew that was who I should be if I wanted my mom, and probably most other people, to like me. It never lasted. Much as I tried to be better, and much as I knew I should, I just couldn’t get myself to do it. It felt fake and there was nothing I despised more than phoniness. I wished that me, just as I was, could be okay.
“Sometimes you forget to wear deodorant,” Mom said. “If people don’t want to sit next to you at lunch, I can’t really blame them. Is there any reason you do this?” There was a note of desperation in Mom’s voice near the question mark.
I looked at the blue couch and traced patterns with my index finger. I knew she was right. In my mind, I went back to that constant battle about whether it was better to be my individual self, forge my own identity even if it disappointed everyone else, or if I should try to fit in and please her.
I should’ve wanted to be clean and normal, all done up so boys at school would like me and the girls would include me. Sometimes I did want that more than anything, to feel like I belonged, like I wasn’t more different on the inside than I was on the outside. I knew though, that even if I did everything right, I would never be one of them and they would never accept me. A boy would be laughed out of school if he asked me out. The only girls who said anything to me were exceedingly good, helpful, Christian girls and it felt like I was their good deed of the day. Most of the time, I didn’t want to do one little thing to try to impress people who had rejected me all my life. For once, I liked myself, even my outsider status, because I was real, and I valued that above all else. When I wasn’t attempting to make myself perfect for my parents, I thought I would die to defend the honor of not selling out.
As for the showers and deodorant, I just didn’t want to have a body, that was all.
“Do you have an answer?” Mom asked.
I shook my head.
“Yeah,” Dad said, his first syllable since the conversation started. “You could show more school spirit too. Go to football games and dances.”
I shrugged heavy shoulders, crossed my arms again. I’d rather get murdered in my sleep. My mind flashed on mandatory pep rallies: dance music with meaningless words, cheerleaders and football players parading around the gym while everyone cheered like it was the Second Coming. I felt like an alien at these events, felt bad about the parts of myself I loved. I shook my head again. “But that stuff’s stupid.”
“Well, you’re not winning anyone over with this look,” Mom said.
But this is me, I wanted to scream.
In my room without music, I pulled out my red notebook with a Nirvana sticker on it and started a new letter to Kurt. I told him about school today and the talk I just had with my parents. “It’s like they think the only way for me to be likable is if I magically turn into someone else. Brush my hair a million strokes a day and presto, I become prom queen and they can love me. Fuck that!”
Four years, I told myself silently, I just need to make it through another four years. Then I’d be a freshman in college, fully free, with all this bullshit behind me. I had made it through fourteen, I tried to reason, I could get through another four. Still, it felt endless and unbearable.
“I love you, Kurt. If you ever wanted to come back alive, I would trade with you.” I stopped writing and imagined us in my school library making the trade. Kurt wanted to talk me out of it, but I already had my heart set on sacrificing my life for his.
There was a knock on the front door and I ran downstairs. It was Ryan. Randy and I went outside. “Hey, you guys,” I said, “let’s go jump in the bushes again.”
The music, the jumping and the friendships obliterated everything. This was my fucked-up music heyday. A few times a week, I daydreamed about dying. I had never felt so vibrantly alive.
©2008 Emilia Jordan