“Cuts You Up” sample chapter.
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Prelude: Night They Missed The Metal Show.
You should know, first of all, that I am an unreliable narrator. Of course I am. All first-person narratives are unreliable. People are unreliable. Human memory is unreliable. The cliche is that we see what we want to see, but it’s not that. It’s that we forget what we don’t want to remember. And the things we do remember, we remember in our own way. We remember things the way we perceived them at the time. And when we remember them it’s like playing an old record. Every time we take out those old memories and play them back, we put new scratches on them. And play them on different equipment, listen to them with different ears. So the song changes. And the song was only our interpretation to begin with. It may be flawed, but it’s my song and I’m the only one who knows it. So I’ll sing it my way.
We were hurtling down the street and Nick Cave was asking which one of us wanted to die. That’s how I remember it, anyway. That’s how I remember everything from that time. Intense and vivid. Even the boredom was intense. No mere malaise, but oppressive and crushing, like a thick fog that won’t lift. Childhood in a small town in rural Virginia in the Eighties was a mixture of the banal and the wondrous. Stultifying Sunday School lectures. The same Fourth of July parade every year, with the same old man driving his same Model T. The man getting older but the car never changing. But the summer nights were gorgeous and fragrant, the air perfumed so heavily with honeysuckle and mimosa that the scent made you lightheaded. The cool shadowed woods where whitetails grazed indifferently and where you could eat yourself sick on blackberries. The Autumn nights were wood-smoked and crisp and ghosts rustled through the dry maple and oak leaves. Fireflies danced in the graveyards and peep frogs sang you to sleep every night.
The times when I was with my friends seemed to sparkle with dark and vibrant colors. A delirious rush from one experience to the next. I’ve never felt that way since. Everything since that night has seemed blunted and distant, like I’m watching my life on a movie screen. That was the last night I was ever really happy.
One of the cruel ironies of life is that we seldom know when things are about to come to an end. We rarely see the change coming. If we did, would we pause and take in one of the last moments? Hold it in our memory like a snapshot to look back on later and say “that was when things were still good”? We spend most of our time worrying about things that will never happen and we’re blind-sided by the things that actually change our lives. And it’s only in retrospect that we appreciate those times before the change came.
Of course, we weren’t actually “hurtling”. I was driving my 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit, lovingly dubbed The Bunny of Death. Green paint faded to the color of pea soup, band stickers plastered over the rust spots. Bauhaus, The Cure, The Sisters of Mercy, and of course The Misfits’ Fiend Club skull. There were dollar store Halloween decorations, skulls and witches, taped to the insides of the windows. A rubber bat dangled from the rearview mirror. I had inherited the car from my older brother Alan when he joined the Navy, because it wasn’t worth selling. That car wasn’t capable of hurtling anywhere, unless one were to drive it off of a cliff. It sputtered and chugged and, if I had passengers, struggled to get up to highway speed. I was just happy if it didn’t stall when I stopped at a traffic light. But it got me around, was a glimpse of freedom from our small town existence. And the tape player worked. Alan made sure of that. He might have had to push it off the road occasionally, wait for the engine to cool down before restarting it. But when he got it going again, he could listen to his music.
Music was always important in my family. My Dad liked Johnny Cash and my Mom was an Elvis fan. Alan was into Skate Punk. So, by the time I started discovering my own musical tastes, my parents fretted a little over the song titles and the dark imagery. But, they mostly accepted that it was my “thing” and that it was okay for them to not get it. Besides, after years of my older brother blasting The Circle Jerks from his stereo, there wasn’t much that I could do that would shock them.
We were listening to “Sonny’s Burning” by The Birthday Party, I’m sure of that. I had that song on a mixtape that I listened to constantly back then. It was early November 1990. We were on our way to a concert and we were all made up. I had just dyed my hair a few days before, because my natural brown was showing at the roots, and I wouldn’t be seen at a concert with my hair any other color except black. I had it teased up like Robert Smith and I had done my makeup to try to look like Siouxsie Sioux. I’m sure it was a pale imitation, but at the time I thought it looked great. My skirt was long and flowing black. My mom called it my “gypsy witch skirt.” My one pair of fishnets. And the black motorcycle boots that I stole out of Alan’s closet. They were too big for me and I had to cinch the laces down tight, and even then they still gave me blisters for the first month. But they looked so cool. I had on my favorite shirt: Christian Death’s “Only Theatre of Pain.” I wish I still had that shirt. I tried to get it back from the cops afterward. They said I couldn’t have it because it was evidence. Plus they cut it off of me at the hospital. And I guess it probably has a lot of blood on it. Still, it makes me sad to think of it sitting in an evidence locker. Or being incinerated, or whatever it is they do to evidence in closed cases.
Elise was in the passenger seat, her hair bleached almost white. Elise was older, wilder. If this were a movie, she would have been the sarcastic, sex-crazed best friend who my parents think is a bad influence and who shows her tits in the first half hour. In reality we were both sarcastic and we both took turns being a bad influence on each other. And while Elise was as interested or disinterested in sex as any other teenager, she was self-conscious and didn’t even like showering in front of the other girls after gym. Elise liked some of my goth music, but her true love was still glam metal. Guns N Roses, Motley Crue, Skid Row. Anything dark and sexy and dangerous. She still wore acid-washed jeans, the knees ripped out. The same pair she had worn for the last two years, getting too small for her now. She wouldn’t replace them, she said, because they were comfortable and she couldn’t afford a new pair and if the tightness made the guys look at her butt a little more, then that was just a bonus. I always picture her wearing her Appetite For Destruction shirt. It was her favorite. But that’s not right. She couldn’t have been wearing that one, because that was the one they buried her in.
Joey was in the back. Probably stoned. He usually was, but I forbade him to smoke in my car. Pot, anyway. We were all smoking cloves because we thought it made us look exotic and sophisticated. Parents didn’t make too much of a big deal about kids smoking cigarettes back then. They didn’t like it, but figured it was better than other things we could be doing. It was a different time, I guess.
Joey was more of a metalhead, so he was wearing his Slayer shirt. He was chubby and quiet and had long stringy hair that he wore over his face like a mask. He didn’t hang out with other metal fans, because they all called him a fag. He couldn’t even wear his metal shirts at school, because he would get called a poseur. The jock and redneck metalheads didn’t want to believe that a guy like him listened to the same music they did. He was shy and sensitive and got along better with girls. So, he hung out with us, even though he didn’t like our music too much. He didn’t really mind it, though, especially when he was stoned. We both loved Joey, but at the time we sort of thought of him as just being along for the ride. He went along with us on whatever adventures we would take him on. Quiet, passive, lost in a haze of pot smoke. Elise some times referred to him, behind his back, as our “pet boy.” We vainly thought that he just hung around us because he had crushes on us. I know now that for someone to want to stay stoned all the time, they have to be trying to numb a lot of pain. We were dumb back then and we didn’t think boys ever got sad, except when their football team lost. I used to think he was staring at my boobs all the time, but one day, looking back, it occurred to me that he never made eye contact with me. I’m not even sure if he liked girls. In retrospect, I think he was devoted to us simply because we were the first people who were ever really nice to him.
We had discovered Danzig the year before and they were the only band we all agreed on. Their music was dark and brooding enough to satisfy my goth tastes. It was metal enough for Joey. And it was dangerous and sexy enough for Elise. It told stories of forbidden things that fascinated us, that seemed genuinely dangerous. When we found out that they were playing in Richmond, a two hour drive away, the week after Halloween, we knew we had to go. But we never made it to the show. We never made it out of town.
I was driving, because I was the one with a car. That’s just the way it was. I wasn’t the leader or the Alpha or anything. I wasn’t any prettier or smarter or more virtuous than any of my friends. So, I don’t know why I was the only one who survived.