Preface – A Fiction
Here is Matt, at a Joni Mitchell cover show, alone. It’s two days after his partner Brian has died. It’s a holiday Monday; he hasn’t yet had to tell anyone at work what happened, or deal with the most complicated logistics of the death.
Matt pretends he decided to go to the show alone on purpose. Older women sit near him, wearing loud hats and whispering about the drugs they once did when they first listened to the songs. He tries not to think about what Brian would have drank and said.
The first four covers don’t move him, although they’re beautiful. ‘Blue’ changes that. The version they create is haunting; he remembers his older sister playing the original on repeat when he was growing up, and all he can see, as the chorus sings it in Grecian-looking gowns, is the scene from two days ago, the moment when Brian decided to go sailing regardless of a storm warning. He remembers the call from the police at lunchtime. He imagines Brian’s newly nicotine-free lungs, filled with water. Matt notes investments made towards the future (flights booked to see parents, rent paid through the end of the year, a dentist visit, these concert tickets).
Matt cries only for a moment. He argues with Brian in his mind, the inconvenience of his death. The show ends and 'Blue' receives a standing ovation. The theater lights turn on above him, bright white and blinding after all that darkness.
1. ‘All I Want’
There are ten tracks to the Blue album. When I made someone-I-didn’t-then-have-a-label-for a mix CD called Songs of My Life, only one of the songs was Joni Mitchell. It was ‘A Case of You.’ That particular track was on the mix regarding another someone I once didn’t have a label for, an ex-someone who occupied many years of my life. I wondered for many years if I’d always be curious about him, the ex-someone and the real end of the story with him. The what ifs; I’m a person who likes the what ifs.
I wrote wondered but that past tense is a lie, at least some days. I imagine that when I’m less immature, wiser one day, I won’t ask these questions about potential other lives. For now, I forget about the beauty of the mystery; I am in my mid-twenties and often wanting to know the ending.
I am in my mid-twenties and often wanting to
know the ending
2. ‘My Old Man’
To the fictional character named Matt from the preface, I’m sorry. I wrote you to try to make a story out of a Joni Mitchell cover concert in Berkeley that I went to alone because I was trying to enjoy doing more alone, and a concert seemed like a good goal. My friend Annie was often going to concerts alone—she said she preferred them that way sometimes. I felt the same about movies, but a concert! That was the advanced version of these solo dates. I wanted to learn something about pushing through discomfort, something about not needing other people’s company to do the activities I wanted to do. So I bought one ticket to a concert.
Matt, you were originally created to point to and amplify what I felt while listening to their version of ‘Blue.’ I wanted to write a piece that contained the feelings of that cover, without just playing the song for someone.
In the story, you needed a reason for your sadness. I was tired of my grief, how old it was and still so strong sometimes, with no warning.
Someone always dies. I wrote you a lover and then I killed him in the water.
3. ‘Little Green’
The someone who first died in my own story also drowned. First, he fell two hundred and twenty feet off a bridge everyone loves and then he drowned in the bay water. Before both those things, he jumped. Like your fictional boyfriend’s death, this nonfictional death was also unexpected.
He was not my lover, but I cared about his teeth and his lungs and the clothes he wore. We were seventeen; I was in another country at the time of his death. A month before he jumped, I wrote him an email telling him it was okay with me if he wore whatever he wanted. I also told him what was my favorite song he ever wrote. Newly aware of how restrictive my love was, I was trying to show him unconditional love, but in retrospect I was probably just increasing the scope of my conditionalities. He still drowned. It was only once he died that I began thinking about unconditional love.
I once thought the lesson was: sometimes you can’t save people, but now I think the lesson is: never can you save people.
Where is the someone I will love arguing with? I’m always wanting to have found him. I’ve just started dating a person who is resistant to visiting the dentist but whose brushed teeth I would lick anyway. Someone who is trying to quit smoking, or sometimes he is trying. He is trying to try. Maybe I am looking for a someone who could live in Berkeley and pay the rent ahead of time with me, by which I mean someone who wants to invest in the future so I don’t have to do it alone. I’m scared life will make me do it alone—as though that’s the way lessons work. (There are no siblings; there are aging parents who don’t really like speaking to each other.) Sometimes I’m still afraid of a retributive God, or fate, or the world, in that way.
I wrote you a lover and then I killed him in the water
Rather than saying I wrote you, Matt, which feels too active and authoritative, I’d rather say I wondered you into being at the concert, listening to ‘Blue,’ imagining who might be sitting nearby me with the kind of legitimate sadness the song clearly deserved. I killed your lover that same weekend of the concert because it needed to feel immediate, your grief.
Except of course grief can live inside us and even when we think we’ve spooned it all out, into pyres burnt in the desert and sobbing in synagogues, and squeezing of people’s hands who weren’t The Person but who also were dying, still there are pockets of it left in us, and those of us who have grieved know that anything, including or perhaps especially a cover of a Joni Mitchell song, could bring it up again and it could feel almost as fresh as if it was your partner who died that very weekend, and you are too stubborn to cancel plans, or let me be more kind and say too disoriented to cancel.
It was a cheap way to point to grief, Matt. I’m sorry I made him die so suddenly.
Sometimes people do that to themselves, the dying, and sometimes the world does that to people. Ever since I loved someone who did it to himself I have also wanted to make sense of the world doing it to people against their will. I am most curious about the ones who die doing the thing they love, and how those they leave behind reconcile this fact. Future-me knows the feeling of this I’m sure, the body feeling, the ways I will struggle again with a God who lets this happen, but present-me can only write it with my best guess and then apologize: I’m sorry I killed suddenly someone you loved, Matt.
Do you know what it’s like to sit in a room full of people and still feel as lonely as anywhere?
Do you know what it’s like to want to feel separate?
Do you know what it’s like to be an adult who is still, at some level, a petulant teenager?
I made you into all these things.
7. ‘This Flight Tonight’
Matt, you are a man because I like you not being exactly me and I like writing men who feel. Sometimes I forget, and I drink whiskey and lie in bed and become accusatory of untrue facts, of not-caring and not-listening, and then later in the night or early in the morning I say to men in my life, “I’m sorry. I forgot you feel things too.”
Matt, you are a man because I like you not being exactly me and I like writing men who feel
When we were little, we had an older sister who listened to her own music on repeat in her room. In retribution, we played our music, Jewel, loud, and sang to it in the connecting hallway between her room and ours. This was the 90s. It was ‘Ugly Girl’ and ‘Pieces of You,’ played from a cassette tape. We were Jenni and me, and it was only Jenni’s sister really, but I half-lived at her house, at Monica’s house, at Shae’s house, all the houses of people who picked me up after school and fed me. I adopted myself into these families with siblings and plentiful snacks, with other children to bother with music and make-up and inexplicable laughter. In my own house the only child was me and there were enough computers for everyone. We didn’t speak for hours some days.
9. ‘A Case Of You’
Have you ever wanted to live inside an experience that wasn’t within your control? A cruise or a concert or a plane ride, suspended at 30,000 feet for a few years. Have you ever hated the sunlight on your eyelids upon waking? I’m trying to explain what it’s like to want to run from the reality of your own life.
10. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’
Matt, you couldn’t have saved Brian with your trying to be good. I hope you won’t get stuck there, in that thought. Some of us do. He stopped smoking because he wanted to, not because of his love for you, and he went out on the bay for a sail because he wanted to. We do what we want.
Matt, you are crabby sometimes and you are stubborn. You are worried you’re alone but you are not. There are people all around you, Matt, and if you let them, they’d care about you. If you let them, they’d carry you forward until you could carry yourself again.
It is possible the suddenness of sudden deaths will never be a thing to understand. It is possible you don’t want to know what it’s like to be inured to it. That to stay human, to stay in this shock, for now, is exactly the point.
Song: Blue by Kitka (Joni Mitchell cover)
Art by Nour Tahomy
Nour Tahomy is a Sydney based freelance artist. Her work can be described as an exploration of human vulnerability through conceptualism and the feminine. Inspiration varies from nature to poetry, Sufism and her travels around the world. Instagram @sparksflyidraw
Janet Frishberg lives in a bunny-grey room in San Francisco. Her most recent work was published in The Rumpus and Storychord. You can find more of her writing here: janetfrishberg.com.