Our friendship orbits around vegan food and a mutual ambivalence toward jazz school. I’m a recovering goth who likes to pound forties and smoke pot. Adam is a straightedge metalhead. But this is our freshman year of college: a time for debauchery and excess. So when we hang out, instead of getting fucked up, we play violent music in the rehearsal rooms, and we eat.
Adam likes to make it weird. After an appetizer of baked tofu, we feast on blocks of raw tofu slathered with habanero Cholula, soy sauce, and vinegar. We put apples and bananas in our seitan stir-fries. Adam finds a recipe for rosemary tempeh soup, and we hover over the stove to see for ourselves whether or not the pot will boil. When he fails his juries at the end of the spring semester, we walk to our favorite vegetarian Chinese restaurant and order both entrees and all-you-can-eat dim sum. Our incredulous server asks if we’re sure. We’re sure. Soon the food comes in endless waves. Adam eats his feelings; I gorge myself in solidarity.
But food’s therapeutic power doesn’t last forever. Three years have passed since, against the advice of both my therapist and psychiatrist, I quit taking mood stabilizers and antidepressants. Now, at the start of my sophomore year of college, I’m frightened by how extreme and unpredictable my emotions have become. Smoking weed and binge drinking are now routine. It’s hard to tell whether they make things better or worse; I’m never sober long enough to find out. Adam is dealing with some personal shit too. After a week of threatening to break edge, he brings home a six-pack of Killian’s Irish Red. Who the hell drinks Killian’s? But Adam’s palate grows more adventurous by the day. Before long, we spend most nights on the roof deck of our building with a four-pack of Belgian-style ale. Philadelphia can be beautiful when you’re buzzed and up high. It’s a shame I won’t have this view for much longer.
In November I file the paperwork to withdraw from school. I tell my professors that the career musician’s life isn’t for me: teaching kids, hustling for wedding gigs, joining a cover band. It’s not the whole truth, but I don’t need to say more. The faculty has seen it before: students who weep during private lessons, who write desperate manifestos on the the practice room marker boards. Some kids can’t cut it. Some kids crack up.
Philadelphia can be beautiful when
you’re buzzed and up high
On my last night in the city, Adam and I go to the used record store near South Street and stop by Johnny Rocket’s for dinner. Our waitress draws a smiley face with ketchup on our paper plates. She is maybe in her mid-twenties, a youthful, girl-next-door type. Adam and I won’t stop staring at her. She is, to us, The Most Beautiful Waitress in the World.
While we eat our veggie burgers, the lights flash and the music swells. It’s time for the floor show. Our waitress performs a mandatory dance routine while some 1950s pop hit plays on the jukebox. I watch her ponytail bounce under her white hat. Her moves are somehow both chaste and suggestive, designed to excite the suburban dads who bring their families to the city. I know nothing tonight is real: not the seduction or the hamburgers or the classic diner vibe. But right now I need fantasy. Tomorrow I’ll be back in Newark with my parents, staring down the reality of townie life. At night I’ll drink as much as any undergrad. But during the day, while all the students go to class, I’ll sit at home and won’t learn shit.
A few months pass, and Adam calls to ask if I want to play a basement show in Boston. Our band is technically still together, even though we haven’t practiced since December. Of course I say yes. Since leaving school, I’ve spent most of my time working at a movie theater and plagiarizing Rilke poems in my spiral notebook. Ambition slowly leaches out of me. At least now I have an excuse to get out of town.
I pick up Adam at our old apartment. He brings a handful of thrash metal tapes; I’ve got directions and cash for tolls. Neither of us bothers with a change of clothes. Adam doesn’t often drive, so I stay behind the wheel the whole way up. While we zone out to sick riffs and guitar solos, my mind drifts to Shannon, a longtime friend from home.
Ambition slowly leaches out of me. at least now i
have an excuse to get out of town
Last summer we were inseparable. I remember our night in Old New Castle. We held hands while we walked along the water. The sun set behind the nuclear power plant, and the Delaware sky radiated pink, in all its polluted majesty. Before I took her home, I told Shannon I wanted to be more than friends. She let me down gently. I mourned in stages. I moped, kept my distance, pretended we were cool, and, finally, said a bunch of hurtful shit to her in person and on the internet. Now we aren’t on speaking terms.
She moved to Boston last fall for school. I read her LiveJournal and learn she’s gotten into the DIY scene and books punk shows. What if I see her tonight? I’d ask Adam, but we’ve already discussed the Shannon debacle at length. He says I’m in the wrong and that it’s on me to mend the relationship.
Sometimes Adam gives me bad advice.
With two hours to go, I stop for gas and cigarettes. Adam and I split a pack of Peanut Chews. The sugar keeps us going, but it’s not enough. When we’re within city limits, I see a restaurant with the words '100% Asian Vegan' on the awning.
“Check it out,” I say, salivating.
“It’s you,” Adam says.
Somehow the kids at the house have never heard of punk time. They want to start the show now, even though the only people here are the assholes from other bands. Adam and I, who are slated to go on first, don’t have much of a choice. We unload our equipment and set up in the basement next to the hot water heater. Adam leans against a pillar, and I turn my back to the audience. Our amps squeal with feedback. I press play on the drum machine and scream. We call our style of music emo violence, which translates roughly to angsty grindcore. I shout obtuse lyrics without a microphone and pound out distorted bass chords while Adam shreds on his seven-string guitar. Our songs average a minute long. We finish our set in less than ten.
I can’t tell if anyone likes us. We drove six fucking hours for this.
People arrive in droves shortly after we play. Someone brings a keg. Adam and I stand in line, then split up to check out the party. Punks roam the house with coffee pots and Tupperware containers filled with beer. I brood in the living room with a plastic Solo cup. A woman my age smiles at me from across the room. I smile back. She joins me on the couch and leans in close.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” I say. She tells me her name is Ellen.
“Sorry I missed your band.”
We blush through small talk. It’s hard to hear each other with the show downstairs and a stereo blaring in the kitchen. So we keep it simple. I lie and tell her I’m still a music major in Philly. She says she plays cello. I ask her where she goes to school. She says the name of Shannon’s university. I die.
“Right on,” I say.
Shannon has a new life and a new boyfriend. I have no future, no accomplishments to be proud of. Maybe Shannon was my soulmate, and I fucked everything up. We used to write songs together in high school. I sang slightly out-of-key harmonies over her slightly out-of-key leads. We got better with time, our confidence growing stronger with each talent show and battle of the bands. Our last collaboration was during my first semester of college. I was home on break and working on a new song. It was ethereal and slow, with clean electric guitar and bowed double bass. Shannon came to my parents’ house to add harmonies. We sat close on my bedroom floor. I plugged a microphone into the 4-track and handed her the headphones. She sang my apocalyptic lyrics while I stared at the carpet. I couldn’t look at her face.
I sang slightly out-of-key harmonies over her
slightly out-of-key leads
I ask Ellen if she knows her. She says the name sounds familiar. “Cool,” I say. I chug what’s left in my cup. “Hey, I’m gonna check on my guitar player.”
Ellen looks bewildered. My head swirls with memories of Shannon and how big of a dick I was. I leave Ellen on the couch and park myself by the keg.
The party reaches its zenith sometime after the last band plays. I need to find a place to throw up before I black out. The line to the bathroom isn’t moving. I race downstairs to the basement and look for the cellar door that leads to the backyard. In my confusion I stumble into a room where a couple is having sex. Fuck. Sorry. Finally, I find the door and climb the half-dozen steps outside. It’s a frigid New England night. The frozen grass snaps beneath my feet. I stick a finger down my throat to coax the beer out. When my stomach is empty, I step over the steaming puddle of vomit and go back inside. Somehow no one has claimed the filthy couch in the corner. I stretch out and feel the springs dig into my back. The room spins so fast that I can’t even light my cigarette.
Shannon’s face appears when I close my eyes. I try not to throw up again.
The cold wakes me before dawn. I bury myself beneath a pile of abandoned coats and sleep for a few more hours. When I finally get up, my brain feels cloudy, but I’m mostly fine. Adam finds me downstairs. We pack our gear and go.
Before we leave the city, we stop for lunch at the 100% Asian vegan place from yesterday. My hangover kicks in the instant I sit down. The sharp headache, the intestinal distress. Adam looks like he’s hurting, too. We need this meal to be good. Adam reads aloud the names of the most unusual entrees. I settle on the mock octopus because I don’t get why mock octopus even exists, and I would like to move closer to an understanding. Adam orders some kind of spicy gluten. When our food arrives, I pick up my chopsticks and breathe in the rising steam. Adam eats with gusto. He has chosen wisely. The mocktopus is chewy and flavorless, served with just a few limp pieces of steamed broccoli. What bullshit. But I am determined to finish something in my life, to see at least one commitment through to the end. So I drown my food in white pepper and soy sauce, take a deep breath, and clean my goddamn plate.
Song: Disorder by Joy Division
Art by James R Eads
James R Eads is a Los Angeles based surreal impressionist who explores ideas of the soul and human connection through traditional printmaking and new digital media. More of his work can be seen on Instagram (@james.r.eads.art) and at www.jamesreads.com.
Alex Vallejo plays guitar in pit orchestras and a punk band. His writing has appeared in Guernica, The Rumpus, and the Asian American Literary Review, and he blogs at https://medium.com/@watchedlist. He lives in Philadelphia, but calls Newark, Delaware home.