I’ve done many stupid, dangerous things

But this one is a doozy. Sometimes your own movie intersects with someone else’s and it rattles the both of you for a long time. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes you change each other for the better and sometimes you leave the crash with cracked windows and bent fenders.

Loveless [Side A]

It was a typical Tuesday late night during my sophomore year of college: I’d skateboard around the lake of my college campus with a soggy Subway footlong in my backpack leaking oil-and-vinegar all over my Case Logic CD book. As usual, I was wearing a band t-shirt intended to telegraph who I was into and thus What I Was About to someone/anyone else on campus, but I absolutely sucked at being the one to initiate conversation with like-minded kids in band t-shirts sending similar signals.

Since it’s an important part of this story, I must mention my then-dormant penis. In my younger days, I enjoyed figuring out what it could do — what young penis-owner doesn’t love becoming a virtuoso on their instrument — but for the last few years, it had curled up, demoted to simply a pee-tube.

At the behest of my family’s “therapy team”, I’d been prescribed a whopping dose of lithium after a bipolar disorder diagnosis following some teenage “mood swings”. That medication quickly buffed away any troublesome sexual desires I’d have to navigate at the end of high school and entering university. I mean, who needs to explore sex during those formative years? Without sexual desire, I roamed my college campus a numbed child, stuffed with a fluffy synthetic loneliness that didn’t hurt but filled me to bursting like an unwanted teddy bear.

In my heart of hearts, I told myself I wanted a girlfriend, but what I really wanted was companionship, intimacy. I expressed this through my radio show, playing weepy-whiny nobody-loves-me power-pop on the college radio station on my Tuesday morning 2am-6am slot. Every week, I followed the Metal Show — guys who drank and smoked joints with different girls in the studio every week and always handed me flyers to shows with sincere invitations to “come out and cut loose” — and at 6am I was relieved by the Hardcore Punk Show, run by a couple of S.H.A.R.P.s (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) who were intense, political and sneered like junkyard dogs any time I made eye contact with them.

Since it was my first year at the radio station, I didn’t merit a theme. I played “general rotation” — new bands and albums I was discovering myself in the stacks — peppered with whatever a 19-year old could call an “alternative classic”.

That night, early on in my set, I drop the needle on one of those classics — one of “my records” — Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. It’s a seminal shoegaze album now but back then (in the States) it was still strictly for introverts and art school students. I bought a used promo CD in my local record store in high school. The first time I played it, I thought my stereo system was broken; it turned out I wasn’t playing it loud enough. At the right volume, I could use Loveless to escape my family, the idiots I was stuck in high school with, I could astral project myself out of the state of Florida for 48min 33sec… but by sophomore year of college, it had grown into a subcultural marker, a litmus test for my friendship.

I hit play on track six, “I Only Said” and leaned back in the duct-taped studio chair, smiling at the center of a beloved sonic cyclone. Then I noticed something blinking at me: a light on the station’s phone system. A caller?

I fumble for the headphones and punch LINE #2. The voice on the other line was feminine, low, lazy, probably stoned:

CALLER: Hey “Dannnnnn”, if that’s even your real name [chuckles]… this song that’s playing, it’s kinda making me float out of my body.

ME [zero game]: Cool, yeah, uh My Bloody Valentine does that to me too. Heh.

[Litmus test = PASSED]

There was a hint of a Southern drawl in her voice. Maybe it was that plus another late night on the radio without speaking to another soul, but it felt instantly familiar, cozy even. And somewhere, way beneath the all lithium stuffing insulating me from my own desires, something dormant starts to warm up again.

ME [gulp]: So, do you, like, have any requests?

CALLER: Yes, yes... I do. My request is that you stay on the phone with me the rest of the night. I love how… soothing your voice is. It [breathy sigh] makes me want to take off all my clothes…

The rest of her sentence was lost to a heat that the lithium in my brain couldn’t hold back, a hunger that flushed my cheeks, made the tip of my nose pulse and belly gurgle.

++++

It bears mentioning that I was not in fact a virgin at this point in my life. That happened many years earlier, right after I’d my fourteenth birthday. I was deflowered by a more experienced female friend from summer camp who I’d had a crush on; when we finally hooked up, I pretended it wasn’t my first time, she pretended it was hers.

We did it on a leopard print sofa at her aunt’s house and in a single night I’d gone from my first consented boobie-squeeze all the way to becoming a man and then becoming Someone’s Lover, all for the first time. It was intimate and nasty and way more amazing than I’d even imagined.

And yet: it did not repeat again, for five years. Throughout junior high and high school, no more lovers, just a memory of a single magical night no one believed happened, slowly retreating from my life like a song being faded out.

After years of trying and failing to connect with someone that way, to find that intimacy again, I sunk into a depression, angry and confused and without the skills to change that. And as I mentioned: I had “problems”, got a diagnosis and whacked with enough medication that I could “function” again.

++++

CALLER: Billie.

ME: “Billie”…?

BILLIE: My name. It’s short for Wilhemina.

ME: Nice to meet you, Billie. Where are you calling from?

BILLIE: Below Fifth on the beach, near Joe’s Stone Crabs. I’ve had this place down there for like, about seven years now…

We kept talking, for an hour, for two. No one else was calling, for all I knew, no one else was listening either. I had to put Billie on hold every fifteen minutes while I slammed in the chunky magnetic tape carts to play the FCC-mandated radio station IDs and cue up new CDs in the carousels.

But it was easy, talking to her. It felt like we were sitting right next to each other, leaning up on the same tree or something. I hadn’t felt so comfortable with anyone in a long time, and without thinking too much about it, I opened up.

I told her about feeling lonely, about some “problems” I had towards the end of high school. Problems that were philosophical, but became existential. How I’d grown up in a society and community that presented me with exactly the kind of life I refused to lead myself: the never-ending empty pursuit of money/status/upgrades, performing assigned roles in obligatory relationships disconnected from genuine love, oozing exuding toxic unhappiness and judging each other while saying that you actually care. I knew there was another way out there but I didn’t know what it looked like; I had no model other than fictional people on TV… and without a model, I rationally and deliberate wanted to end my own participation. Was the effort life demands even worth it if the goal was to become a pig at a private trough, endlessly eating and shitting, until your time runs out?

I told her about the family doctors who put me on lithium and how it leached all the color and heat out of my whole life. I heard Billie choke up at this: her tiny sob escaped her throat and found me across the phone line connecting us.

BILLIE: Awww — you’re so sweet and smart but… so sad. I’ve known… a lot of sadness in my life too, Dan. And now that I feel good again, there’s… nobody in my life to share it with.

I look up at the clock. It’s 5:41am. In less than twenty minutes, the S.H.A.R.P.s will arrive to claim by DJ seat, and I’ll have to hang up the phone on—

BILLIE: Would you [sharp sigh] want to… come over…?

ME: What, right now?

BILLIE: I’m feeling… a connection to you, to your lovely voice. I really don’t wanna stop talking and I’d like actually see you in person. Do you, wanna?

I did. And I did.

++++

In '94, we had no Google, no sending your pin location to a friend for safety. And even if there was, I didn’t have that buddy to send one to.

What I did have though: my beat-up Toyota with its broken air conditioning. My Sony Discman with a cassette adapter so I could blast more whiny power-pop and not fall asleep while driving. And the 25-minute drive from Coral Gables and across Biscayne Bay to meet a strange woman’s voice who I knew nothing about.

And I had this heat: radiating from deep inside my brain, its temperature inching upwards every other second at the thought of touching another person, being naked together, until it grew hot enough to burn off that fucking lithium.

I know the medical science of what I said doesn’t work like that, but real talk? You weren’t there that night.

++++

Billie lived on the second floor of a 1940s Art Deco condo with rusty water stains on its sides and black mildew spotting the concrete exterior. It was crumbly but charming, surrounded by palm plants and tropical flowers in varying states of blooming and dying.

I parked on the street and walked up the open-air stairs, slid my fingertips across the chipped paint on the metal railway as I approached apartment #4. I knocked timidly on the aluminum screen door and it opened immediately. She’d been waiting.

She stepped out into the night — all five feet of her — and the orange fluorescent streetlight behind her lit her shaggy blonde hair from behind like a crown of fire. She was wrapped in an old silk kimono, red with white flowers. Her eyes were green-blue and bloodshot, eyelids heavy, her lips shiny. Was this a dream?

Terrified, dumbstruck, I started to say “nice to meet you” and she caught my words in her open mouth. I’d only been kissed like that once before — back on that leopard print couch five years before — and all kisses since then were awkward slimy tongue-fumbles. Billie held me there, her palm cupping the back of my skull, pouring raw emotion into my mouth until all my words were gone.

BILLIE [cracks up]: Were you gonna say… ‘nice to meet you’…?

Then she laced her fingers with mine and led me inside.

++++

I was barefoot, one of my socks had a hole in it so I took them both off. It was an efficiency — that’s Florida real estate for “a small studio” — that was chaotic but cozy. My butt was parked at the center of a leather bean bag chair on the floor, and I was watching Billie on the other side of the space. The kitchen side.

She was making me tea, moving lightly on bare feet, blonde hair swishing around her as she struggled to find things in her own kitchen.

BILLIE: I’ll be right there. [nodding to a milk crate of CDs] Wanna play some music?

Pickings were slim but I selected Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. It took a minute to figure out her CD player and stereo, and by the time “Suzanne” started playing, Billie curled up on the floor next to me and handed me my mug of Celestial Seasonings Mandarin Orange tea.

The bottoms of her feet were dirty, and her kimono had come open. She was only wearing a pair of blue panties underneath it. She stared over the rim of her mug at me as she sipped her tea.

BILLIE: Do you like it? The tea?

I nodded. I grew up with this flavor, my mom used to make it all the time, so we didn’t drink soda. An association I dug furiously to bury again after it surfaced.

Looking around, her apartment was a tangle of twinkling Christmas lights, children’s paintings, and black-and-white photos of herself thumbtacked to the walls. She looked much younger then, white-blonde long hair with heavy black eyeliner and pursed lips. Almost all of her photos were nudes, tasteful and artful ones.

My eyes found her eyes again. She was watching me take her in.

BILLIE: I used to be a model, some years ago in Japan. [her bottom lip quivers slightly] I don’t… do that anymore.

I smiled, told her I appreciated the photos. Because I sincerely did—

—and it was like a switch in her brain just flipped. Her forehead crumpled, her lips folded in on themselves, and she threw her mug of tea at the wall. It broke into heavy chunks, knocking a fingerpainting off the wall and staining a photo of her younger self sitting topless in a wooden bathtub, orange tea warping its smile as it ran down the wall. I snapped to attention, suddenly ready for anything—

BILLIE: I was beautiful, then. Don’t you think I was beautiful? Believe me, everyone in Tokyo wanted me. Everyone! And now I’m old and faded and living in fucking Florida like a… ghost with… soft… breasts!

She growled low and yanked the kimono off her shoulders, stuck out her chest at me. Her breasts didn’t look soft to my eyes. They were quite nice. And she was still beautiful, maybe more so with the weathered edge her unhappiness had given her.

She was clearly going through something, but I was too. My brain was trying to burn off this lithium but the signals weren’t reaching below my belt. I squished myself down further into the bean bag until I became part of it, like a sexless toad.

ME: Your breasts don’t look soft to me, Billie. And you’re still beautiful.

Clunky and cold, but that’s what I had available: positive encouragement and flattened kindness. She defensively covered herself with her arms, her breath heaving:

BILLIE: Then… why won’t you make love to me?? You’re just sitting there— drinking that god damn tea!

ME: I didn’t even want this tea, Billie. You just made it for me without asking.

Another switch flipped, this time into another universe. She locked eyes with me and smiled. It reminded me of Jack Nicholson typing in The Shining:

BILLIE: Then throw it at the wall if you don’t want it. Fucking throw it! [giggles] THROW IT AND SMASH IT UP!

Sometimes, when you’re in an unfamiliar situation, you just have to go with it. I stopped observing myself, stopped questioning my behavior, and chucked her mug at the wall as hard as I fucking could. It broke into pieces, staining everything transparent orange and shorting out her mini-stereo system. Billie jumped up and down, clapping like a misbehaving little girl.

BILLIE: YES! THERE HE IS! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!

By the time my head turned to take her in, she leapt on top of me, straddling me, grinding herself against me and shuddering. My brain lit up and went into alert mode, all points of my nervous system engaging, but then—

Billie bit my bottom lip with her canines, tearing the skin, lapping up the blood she drew. She bit my shoulder, spit in my face, slapped my cheek and—

— another switch flipped, but this time it was mine. Something inside me unlocked and the room flushed hot magenta like MBV’s Loveless album art. I kissed her back — tentative but open-mouthed — then I bit her underneath her jaw, hard enough for her to yelp — at which point my brain’s neurochemical air traffic controllers threw up their hands and went home, the lithium dose overpowered by the petite woman in my lap dry-humping me like a lonely chihuahua. She shoved me onto the floor — into a puddle of orange tea and coffee mug shards — both of us panting. We crashed into each other like Black Friday shoppers, grabbing and fighting and fumbling across the floor toward her mattress in the corner.

And then I had sex for the second time, and then the third, fourth, fifth. Clingy, scratching, frantic, nervous, eventually lovely. Each time we finished, I’d edge myself slowly towards the edge of the mattress to go to the bathroom and Billie’s fingernails would rake down into the skin of my arms, pinning me to the mattress, then drawing me tight against her ribcage.

BILLIE: No. Don’t leave.

ME: It’s okay, I… I’m just gonna pee.

BILLIE: No. Hold me tight and tell you love me. It doesn’t matter that we both know it isn’t true.

She was dead serious, so I wrapped me arms around her, nuzzled her ear. I hated saying it when I didn’t mean but I did:

ME: I… love you, Billie.

Hearing my words, her body began to writhe, convulsing, and her tears came in waves. For like, hours. She cried until her eyes were bloodshot, her nose running, disheveled but still beautiful in her neverending, bottomless sadness.

I wondered if I mattered in this equation at all. If I was just a warm body, a male body, who said the right words for her to unburden herself. In that moment, I wanted to get up and return to my college dorm… but that would’ve been cruel.

+++

Eventually Billie fell asleep for a little while and woke up horny again. After she’d come some more, the sun began peeking up over the Atlantic, filling her efficiency with honeyed light and her with a new energy. She wrapped herself up in her bedsheet, our wet spot between her shoulderblades — my soul soared seeing that wet spot — and she climbed up onto her sink and out the kitchen window.

I followed her. There was a ledge and a rusty metal ladder beside it. The bolts holding fast in the concrete were loose but it held as we climbed up to the fourth-floor rooftop. She unfurled the gooey bedsheet like a cloak and invited me underneath, and we watched the sunrise together like that.

BILLIE: Hey, how old are you?

ME: I’m… nineteen.

BILLIE: Oh wow, you’re a baby! [laughs][ I just fucked a baby!

She looked at me, waiting for me to ask her age. I knew better, and she grew quiet for a few minutes, searching for the right words before:

BILLIE: You have so much time to… grow taller, like in your spirit. Most men… never do. They don’t have to. They hit the point you’re at now and the world keeps rewarding them for it, forever. Don’t stay… this. Try and grow taller, become somebody better than you are right now.

++++

I’m such a dumb kid in this moment. Truly, she’d fucked a baby. My words failed me, my processing of her request was slow… but that was almost thirty years ago and I get it now, Billie. I get it.

++++

In Florida, it rains suddenly, even when the sun is shining. There don’t have to be clouds. Rain came quick down on us just then, under the sticky bedsheet. It felt so cleansing, and then it felt cold.

We scrambled one after the other back down the iron ladder — my feet slipped off one step, giving me visions of splitting open my skull on the asphalt below— and then we were back in Billie’s kitchen.

We took a hot shower together. There really wasn’t enough room for two bodies in there, but we got soapy enough to make it work. We took turns drying each other with her one funky towel before I started hunting around for my tea-soaked socks, my pants, my briefs:

ME: I have to… go now. I have to get to class.

A darkness crosses Billie’s face, moving behind her eyes like a shadow.

BILLIE: Oh. That doesn’t feel good. That feels like a… punch. [suspicious] What class do you have so early in the morning?

ME: It’s at 9am. “Survey of 19th Century Romantic Poetry.”

BILLIE: You mean like Keats? And Wordsworth?

ME: Yeah. And Coleridge and… Blake, who is my favorite.

BILLIE: I write poems, in my little notebook. Would you like me to read you one?

ME: I would love that, but I really can’t miss this class.

BILLIE: Can I make you some coffee, my Romantic poet?

ME: Only if I can take it to go. I’ve already missed too many classes. My professor said she’d flunk me if I was absent one more time.

Billie boils water and hands me an instant Sanka in a Denny’s mug.

ME: Am I supposed to… take this with me?

BILLIE: I mean, we’ll see each other again, right?

She’s staring into — and through — my eyes, searching for my brain to see if I’m telling the truth. And truly, I don’t know if I am. I don’t know what the truth is, on such little sleep, up all night screwing wildly after being jailbroken from my lithium dose. I don’t know how I feel, only that my feelings are moving farther away again. Not cotton-wrapped anymore but definitely not naked.

But what am I supposed to say to her, in this moment?

ME: Of course, Billie. We’ll see each other again.

And her eyes, they can see through these words, see the doubts and noise behind them. Hot tears well up in her eyes, but they don’t spill down her cheeks. They’re not sad tears, they’re angry ones.

BILLIE: Okay then. But if you say that and don’t mean it [she chuckles here] I’m gonna come to your school and slit your pretty throat.

What do you even say to that? We share a long coffee-breath salty-lipped kiss.

And if I hadn’t been in such a rush to getting to Romantic Poetry on time, if I could’ve somehow kept watching her outside of her efficiency while simultaneously driving away in my Toyota, I might have caught her scribbling down my license plate number.

[end of Side A]

This ran longer than I expected, but it all came flooding back so nicely. Next time, I’ll flip the record and we can listen to Side B together. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you thought, and if you had any similar car crashes you’d like to share.

Até a próxima,