More than three years ago, I flew back to Portland from a busy and tear-filled weekend in California. The second one in a row flying down to the sunny state and spending time researching a project I would let fall by the wayside as my life disintegrated, a dust bowl of my own making, one I didn’t see coming even if I should have.
I kept busy on both trips, but especially during the last one – to SF and Oakland and Santa Cruz – I cried every quiet moment I had alone. I realized, fully and in that full-body-chilling kind of way, that when I got home, I needed to end my thirteen year relationship. I drove to Twin Peaks after crying all along Market street, and tried to find solace in that view that I love – the one that always used to calm me and help me breathe when the air would be too shallow for my lungs to take in, when my ribcage was so tight that breathing was a chore and a pain. But the wind rocked my car and the air was hazy and I sat in my car crying before calling it a night and returning to my hotel room to try to think of anything except what I knew I needed to do, what I knew there was no way out of now.
I flew in on a Tuesday morning and I took a cab home to an empty house, except for the dogs and the cats, and I bathed and changed and tried to keep from crying. I didn’t want to have swollen eyes when she came home and I had to have the talk.
So I turned on the tv. I started to make some food. I tried to keep my eyes and my ears and my hands busy. I didn’t even care what was on, really, so I left it on whatever channel it was on. It was a morning talk show. And Hole was about to play. A new song from their first new album in years.
As they started to play, I found myself paralyzed, leaning against the door jamb between the dining room and the living room. And the song – Pacific Coast Highway – hit nerves I had no idea were so exposed. Each verse seemed to tear a new hole in my skin. The tears came fast and hard. And then I thought: I am at one with Courtney Love right now. And I cried more. And thought: Who the fuck am I if I am nearly brought to my knees by a Hole song? What is going on with my life when I see myself in Courtney Love?
Through the next two years, as my world fell apart and reassembled itself several times before stabilizing in the way of real life – mostly static and sometimes chaotic, but not the rocking seas of deep, true transition – through that time, my Courtney-Love-edness became a barometer. How much that album resonated, how much that song made me cry, or cringe, became my gauge. How fucked up am I? Right now? Still?
I hadn’t thought of that moment in at least a year. I hadn’t heard a single song from the album in at least that much time.
A friend had just left after a short visit. She hadn’t been to San Francisco since she was eight, and even then it was just for a day. She was separating from her husband. The move out still new. She was in the middle of the pains that come as shocks in the beginning, still new and startling and raw. She was on edge – far more prone to emotional swings than she wanted to be. I ached for her, as a friend, but also as a woman who knew the muscle pain of that kind of shift in your body, in your world.
I took her to Twin Peaks. We looked over the city together, the expanse of it laid out all around you, Sutro towering above us all, still, even atop that mountain. She took it in, sat down on the concrete barrier, even though scared of the plunge, and looked, her head full of what I can only imagine, some other, personal version of what I have waded through. What she has, too, before. But each time, no matter how many times before, aches differently and tears ours bones apart in unforeseeable ways.
A couple of days after she left, I plugged my old ipod into the car stereo. Mostly out of laziness – I didn’t want to keep taking my phone out of its case to play it through the AUX hookup. I picked the playlist that had the most songs and hit shuffle. I wasn’t even thinking that I had made that playlist all those years ago, during that time. Love’s voice came in strong – that song, those words.
And did you know I’m drowning. And did you know I’m drowning.
I listened to that song, fully and intently, for the first time in a very long time. I was nowhere near tears. There were no chills, no real body connection to the pain and nausea and disorientation of that time. My rib-cage seemed to expand. My shoulders dropped slightly. I was relieved. Grateful.
In a quick rush and without much pain, the song and that moment of pure stillness and tears had come back to me. But I wasn’t sad or teary or aching. Mostly I just felt a slight twinge of embarrassment. A little bit of melancholy, but not even inching up on true sadness. A large heaping amount of relief. I am not, anymore, any little bit of Courtney. Not in that way, not now.
As I watched the sun fully set and the red lights whizzed on ahead in front of me on the 880, I said a prayer for my friend. That her route through this chaos is fast and with fewer upheavals. I know she is already making smarter choices than I did. I know that she has less stability in store, but she knows how to make the most of that. She is embracing the change and taking advantage of what it has to offer, so she is way ahead of me already.
I prayed, for her, that Courtney Love never becomes an image she sees in the mirror. But also, that if she does, she finds the ways to wipe that smeared lipstick off and comb that rat’s nest and put on a more fitting dress – without having to resort to plastic surgery and rehab and Woody Harrelson movies and all of that other stuff Love did.
If we do this thing right – this life we have – then when you flip the calendar pages, you are glad to be heading into the future and not into the past. You do not mourn the discarded pages so much as see how they have stacked up in your marrow, created an intricate fabric of air and water and salt.
Most of all, if you are lucky and you make the effort, you will now know how to not be knocked down by the musical guest on a late morning network gab-fest. You will know better. You will be better.
Time is only time. If you let it roll over you, then you look tattered. But if you pedal your feet and look at where you’re going, then maybe time will be two points on a line, from there to here and not back again. And the songs that sear will become bittersweet reminders of where you no longer are, who you no longer are, the nerves that are no longer exposed.
Oh, Courtney Love, I do still love that album. All who want to can judge me for it. But it is not me. I am not that album, that song, that singer. And for that, I say thanks. And goodbye to another year. And then, in the same breath, hello – to a life I’ve worked at getting. One that so far does not require a life jacket. To a life.
Cheers, 2014, let’s do this.