Heartbreak Summer//Heartbreak City

It’s summer in the city
That I love
But could never love enough
Or half as much
As you love it
I sketch the skyline
To memory behind my eyes
Remember the first time
I watched your eyes light up
The night you talked about
How grateful you were for the ways this place
Too root in your bones
And never let go.

There’s a metaphor here, baby
Just below the surface
For sure.

The concrete and the pavement
Soak up the burning sun like a sponge
All that stone laid by hard working men
Absorbs the heat
Reflecting it back
Like an opaque mirror
Drinking every last drop
Of moisture from my skin

I’m all tears and sweat and a heaving chest
Sitting on the Highland Park steps
Doing my best to remember
How to take a breath
Talk my lungs backwards
To the days when inhalations
Came with ease
Without the weight
Of heartache pressing
Down on my chest

I cried (tough) every day
For a week straight
Then I cried for another week after that
Ran every toll between Pittsburgh and Philly
With barely a bite of food in my stomach
Listened to sad songs on repeat
Wondered if leaving wasn’t a mistake
Or some bad dream

The kind I would wake from
Turn over in bed to tell you about
Before dragging myself downstairs
To make your morning coffee
And brew my green tea
Just like any other morning
Lived in this hellish year without end
Except it wasn’t
This last year of dread ran us both ragged
Turning on each other all the way
To the end of the road

I know it was never time wasted
As much as it was time hard spent
With the days so fucking long
And so slow, slow as the despair that encroached
Like dust gathered in the corners and crevices of the room
So much
We could scrub and scrub
Never wipe the grime away
Enough make a clean break
To make the years last
As long as we’d hoped

It’s summer in my new city
Transitory as my time
Doc Marten stomping my way
Through the aching haze of heartache
On these dirty streets may be
We all know my story ends in the mountains, anyway.

The way people drive in Philly…
Relentlessly reckless
I know you would hate it
Someone said:
“It’s like every person on the road
Just smoked meth
And now they have to take a shit”
Two near collisions this week
And I’m already looking
In some quieter direction.

It’s summer in this city
The first one I feel in love with
I’ve been missing you terribly
Save for those quiet moments
Now and forever my own
Where solitude comes as a relief
In my tiny room
With the air conditioner turned low

I wonder what you’re doing
Are eating enough
Drinking enough water
Getting plenty of rest
How do you sleep
Alone, with the windows open
These nights when summer swells
The nighttime air in our room
(I guess it’s your room now)
Around you like a sweating soup

How are you filling the empty
Spaces in the house
That I used to inhabit
Throughout the home we tried
Our noble best to build
Together

I’m lucky I guess
Not having to contend
With vacant rooms in the house
Where tomorrow once lived
I find myself alone, in another city
Thankful for the books stacked
On the pillow next to me
(I still think of them as your pillows)
Like I did
At my bachelor best
Before you came along.

Lonely bedroom bullshit, again.
I can live with it.

It hurts the most at night
Lie awake in bed
Replay our last hours together
After we accepted the end
All that staggering stagnancy
Heartache and bitterness
Finally falling away
Cutting words, quiet now
The unkindness that sundered us
Finally softened
To reveal the bittersweet tragedy
Of missed chances
A story of almost making it.

On the street the next day
A kiss goodbye
Cup your face in my hands
“I love you I love you I love you”
Like a wish
A hope
That those three words could suture the wounds
Left without meaning to
I never meant to hurt you, you know
Just like I know you never meant to hurt me
Hearts so tender taken for granted
On this fucking burning planet
Inattention to detail is one kind of failure
Barbed words rising to be heard are another.

At night I sleep
I pray for an absence of dreams
Or if the universe cannot meet that small mercy
May rest at least off us a path back ruins undone
To hearts beating strong and unbroken.

I hope you
Are remembering to stay hydrated
And that your dinners are always
As delicious as they are filling
That your worries wane with the warming days
Anxiety is a conniving, heartless motherfucker
That you never deserved
Anymore than one of us
Asked for time that forgot how to be gentle.

I hope your dog never gets sick
I hope your time together is as long as it is tender
That the two of you are as blessed
As Hope and I have been
I hope he learns how to play fetch
Please give him a scratch behind the ears for me
If you happen to read this

I hope all the dust and the clutter and depression
clear
I hope you keep loving yourself
And that every job you get pays you well
I’m sorry that I lost myself
Somewhere in the noise of could have beens
Most of all
I wish you well
I wish you the very best.

Sound and Story 5

            K.T.’s mom used to let us party in her house, some non-descript, two story cookie cutter type deal, deep in the suburbs of East Denver.  I would never be able to find it again, even if I wanted to.  When I try and picture the neighborhood, I think it was somewhere near the intersection of Hampden and University, but I’m not sure. 

            Her parents had divorced sometime in the recent past, and K.T.’s mom got the house and she lived there alone with her daughter.  At parties, I imagined I could see empty spaces on the walls and mantles, where family photos had once hung, later to be removed in bitterness.  I was 17, smart beyond my years, but immature all the same.  Black jeans, black boots, with a studded leather jacket and full of strong opinions and naivete.  Observing, but never quite listening.  I still cringe when I think about it sometimes. 

            Most of my friends were under 18, but their boyfriends were older.  I remember thinking something was just a little off there, shuffling awkwardly in the kitchen, watching combat boots and Doc Martens scuff and stomp across the linoleum, the hiss of beers cracking open, cigarette lighters igniting behind hands cupped in front of young faces all around.  A smokey haze filled the kitchen.  Empties lined the counter, discarded where they lay.  Kids gathered together in cliques and whorls, talking shit and laughing, racing each other towards beer bellies and bad teeth. I played the wall, found my refuge in the corner, always wishing to be a part of it all, but feeling alone in a crowd all the same. 

            It was cold outside.  December, the first day of winter break; the very depths of the cold and dark season.  Someone put on a Discharge record, and visions of a nuclear winter engulfing the entire world, save for walls around us filled my mind.  The world outside would go to ash and eternal snow, and we would be in here, partying against the dark; racing towards a self-imposed oblivion all our own 

            “Sometimes K.T.’s brother comes home from college, and her mom comes out of her room, and both of them party with us!” one of the boyfriends in a ratty black hoodie, stained brown with filth and smoke and beer, despite its very suburban origins said, as he cracked open another beer.

            I coughed cigarette smoke. 

            “That’s cool, I guess.” 

            K.T.’s boyfriend called himself “Mikeaholic”, a seemingly ancient at 23 punk rocker, with drooping features and a prematurely alcohol aged face.  He lived down in Colorado Springs, but came up to Denver to party when he could find a ride.  Otherwise, he was just an invisible presence, K.T.’s boyfriend that she got into fights with on the phone late at night when they were both drunk.  One night after everyone had passed out, I heard crying, and found K.T. crying on the stairs.  I offered her the clumsy comfort I was able, and went back to sleep in the basement around the time the sun came up.  I met Mike a few weeks later at a party and he copped an attitude when Annie and I put our Cure or Joy Division records on the stereo. 

            “Fuck this weak shit, put on some crust!” he muttered. 

            “No,” we’d reply flatly, doing our best emulation of elegant gothy spider dancing at 3 AM. 

            I drifted apart from that crew of punk rockers by the time winter ended, with some regret and some relief mixed in.  I just couldn’t keep my big, over opinionated mouth shut about the inherent sketchiness of boys in their 20’s hanging around teenagers and feeding them beer, and how it all seemed just a little predatory.  The last time I ever set foot in K.T.’s house, I somehow missed my ride home from the party as a snowstorm rolled in.  24 hours in the house with K.T. and her mom, watching TV and drinking glass after glass of wine was bleak enough for me.  The roads cleared up, K.T. gave me a ride home, we hugged goodbye and she became a familiar face at shows until I stopped seeing her altogether.  I heard a rumor tawdry rumors here and there, but paid them little mind. 

            I saw Mikeaholic a few years later, when Tragedy played the Monkey Mania warehouse on 21st and Arapahoe, right downtown, on tour for the Vengeance LP.  I had just paid my 5 bucks at the door, and was walking back to the show space, when I caught sight of him, swaying with a tall boy of PBR in his hand, talking shit to one of my friends.  He gesticulated aggressively with his beer, uncurling a finger from the can to point at my friend. 

            “Yeah, you wear those Carhartts, but you don’t work in them.” 

            “Damn,” I thought to myself.  “Mikeaholic may or may not have a point about punk kids from the suburbs appropriating working class attire, but he still looks like he aged 10 years in half that time.” 

            Later when Tragedy played, he ran roughshod through the crowd, sloppily throwing elbows and clotheslining kids.  Time slowed for an instant, and I caught his face; dead eyed, and obliterated, barely aware of his surroundings.  His body crashed into mine, and I caught a whiff of beer soaked sweat and impotent rage.  I ducked a flailing fist and spraying beer and thought, “Fuck this.  I paid 5 dollars for this show too.  This fucker isn’t ruining it for me.”  I caught the hood of Mike’s sweatshirt and drug him back to the warehouse in the dark.  His legs gave out, and he hit the ground.  I kicked him in the stomach and dove back into the pit to watch the rest of Tragedy’s set.  I didn’t see Mike again that night. 

            I saw K.T. one more time, the last summer I lived in Denver, almost 7 years since we had all partied in her mom’s suburban home.  I was at Bar Bar, grabbing a beer after my shift at work one night, seeing if any friends were around before climbing back on my bike to ride through the concrete and glass canyons of downtown, across Broadway to the couch on Lipan Street where I crashed in lieu of having a home of my own. 

            None of my friends were around, but I grabbed a beer all the same.  I glanced up from my half-drained pint glass and saw K.T., in the back room playing pool, flirting with a man who looked old enough to be her father.  An aging yuppie type, graying hair, with liquor rosed cheeks and a slack, slightly empty look on his face.  He put down his cue and ordered another round.  K.T. put her finger seductively on his nose and mouthed what I thought were the words “What a sweetheart” and a look crossed the man’s face like he had just hit the goddamn lottery.  K.T. glanced over towards the bar, and my eyes shot back towards the dregs of my drink.  I don’t know if she remembered me or not.  I finished my beer and rode home. 

            I saw Mikeaholic one more time, a few weeks later, also at Bar Bar.  Ross, and Melissa, and Grant-O-War and I were drinking our way through two-dollar pitchers of PBR when Mikeaholic and a friend sat down at a booth near ours.  The details blur together now, lost to alcohol and time and fading memory.  I do know for a fact that the night ended in a one-sided fight on the corner of 21st and Champa after closing time.  Something about Mikeaholic calling Ross a faggot, and everyone glaring icily at one another as pint glasses emptied and refilled and tempers flared steadily and vision blurred. 

            Out on the sidewalk after last call and closing time came and went, with an invisible line drawn in the sidewalk between Mike and his friend, and us.  Someone slurred something about the inherent oppressiveness of homophobic slurs and a stalemate ensued.  All of the potential combatants swayed and glowered in place, not giving any ground until Mikeaholic swung on ross.  The punch went wild and wide, telegraphed by sheer clumsy inebriation.  Ross ducked the shot as easily as Melissa caught it. 

            Melissa, the toughest punk rock woman I ever knew, easily a girl gang of one, who had once initiated a brawl that ended in her and a few of our friends stomping the living shit out of some frat boys who threw out a racial slur at one of our friends, caught the punch midair, despite it seeming miles away from Ross’ jaw, and twisted Mike’s arm behind his back, and took him to the ground, somehow dragging his friend down with him. 

            She pushed both of their heads into the gutter and growled: “Are you going to apologize to my fucking boyfriend?”

            “Yes,” they both whimpered. 

            Someone told me later that Mikeaholic was so humiliated by that trouncing that he told his friends how he got jumped by “At least ten of those bike punks who live on 11th and Lipan” and how we beat him with our U-locks to the point where he pissed blood for days afterwards.  He had apparently sworn revenge. 

            “Whatever, I’m not really going to be afraid of someone who drinks himself to the point of pissing his pants nearly every night,” Ross laughed. 

            I moved away a few weeks later, driven more by boredom and directionless than any distaste for the city of Denver.  I never saw Mike, or K.T., or many of the names and faces in this story again.  They became passing, detached characters flitting through the cinema of memory, an occasional “I wonder whatever happened to…” An assortment of strange and sordid characters that haunted the landscape of the first city I ever loved, a city I now barely recognize when I pass through it.  The punks who drank, and fought and fucked, and played loud music in the warehouses and the dive bars and the basements all scattered to the wind by gentrification and the weight of age. 

            I heard later that Mike caught the mother of all bad reputations when he goaded a friend into shooting himself during a bad mushroom trip in a warehouse on 21st and Larimer.  The way the story went, the kid was freaking out, spiraling into drug induced paranoia.  “All my friends fucking hate me and I should just die!” he screamed. 

            “Yeah, whatever, just go do it already,” he said. 

            The kid ran off into his room, and then a gunshot.  

            There’s no moral here.  No lofty, sweeping proclamations about sobriety and self-abuse, and generational cycles of addiction and trauma.  I’m tired of talking about romanticized self-annihilation.  I can only expect a reader to be so invested in whatever sad and/or possibly redemptive ending someone named “Mikeaholic” wrote for his story.  He either pulled himself back from the precipice, or he didn’t.  I have no idea.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it a thousand times.  Punk taught us how to survive, but never quite how to thrive.  Wherever Mike, and K.T., and so many other characters that the world could never go easy on, or had opportunities and squandered them at the bottom of a bottle are, I hope they have found whatever passes for thriving in this thresher.   

A stock image of Bar Bar.

Sunday Sound and Story: 3

Somewhere in all the alienation and ennui of modernity and adulthood, I lost the magic of solitude.  In the age of pandemic, it clings to me with a sense of claustrophobia, sticking to me like a film of sweat on my skin that I can never quite wash clean.  The house, the city, the country, the world are suffocating.  I search in desperation for the moments and quiet places where I can catch my breath.    

1988, Friday nights home alone, in my bedroom with the radio on, huddled beneath a blanket fort with my action figures or my books.  The scholastic bookfair edition, dumbed down, violence and sexuality toned down, edition of Dracula, with a drawing of an open grave, spider crawling across a wooden casket with a skeletal, vampiric hand was my favorite. 

Power 96, weekend Power Mix live DJ sets coming from the clock radio on the dresser, yellow streetlight sneaking through the slats in the shutters.  I felt at home in the night, even back then.  At the most ease underneath my skin with nobody else around.  My parents watched TV and smoked cigarettes in the living room, maybe Dateline or 20/20, until it was time for bed.  I set the sleep timer on the radio for an hour.  My mother tucked me into bed, always leaving the door open just a crack with the hall light on.  I would lay awake, listening to the radio, watching the light through the shutters, the shadows dance across the floor when a breeze caught the tree outside my window.  Late night DJs to keep me company, the solace of sound to lull me to sleep. 

A boombox with a strap, I carried the radio with me Saturday mornings, off to the park beneath the powerlines before the world woke up.  The Powerlines, all the kids called the park, a mile long, double figure 8 bike path cut through big open fields ensconced on all sides by suburbs.  A concrete and high-tension wire canyon cut through South Florida swamp land.  The omnipresent hum of electricity above, transmission towers stretching across the horizon, as far as the eye could see, into infinity.  Tropical parrots made their nests in the crossbeams, their calls occasionally cutting through the constant hum. 

I rode the loop slowly, a copy of Vital Idol dubbed from a neighbor’s older sister in my boombox.  While White Wedding seemed so brooding and scary (Gimme a break!  I was 7!), and Dancing with Myself to this day remains one of the first songs I ever connected to on an emotional level, AND, I will admit to having come up with a dance routine for Hot in the City, which I performed for my parents, on the kitchen counter, clad only in a pair of blue jeans and a tiny blue denim jacket with no shirt on underneath (I’ve always wondered what kind of nervous post-bedtime conversations between my parents that inspired).  The remix of Catch My Fall at the end of the album was my favorite song, and continues to be a song I love to this day.

The song hit, Sitting in an empty playground, watching big, ominous South Florida skylines, wondering where the powerlines ended, imagining the electricity buzzing above me carried to some vast urban elsewhere.  A place where gritty city lights never turn out for the night, and there is always a current of excitement in the air.  Where there is always music playing and everyone looks cool, leaning against a wall, possibly going nowhere. 

A storm rolled off the ocean from the west.  Thunder rumbled.  Lightning flashed in the distance.  Always a sign that it was time to head home.  As if on cue, a transformer exploded on one of the lines across the lake.  A flash and a bang, the houses just beneath it went dark.  The wind picked up, and I heard sirens in the distance.  I put one foot in front of the other and pedaled home.