by C. Russell Price
I ain’t got the time
and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab
but I won’t go, go, go
I’m 18 and living in NYC for the summer, studying at a prestigious acting studio. I’m there to train and grow, but really, I’m coming from a small town in Virginia and I was in the Big Apple to get some Big D.
My first week as a city mouse, I bought a fake ID at a head shop near NYU. I was there to see John in the back and I got to pick which state I wanted to be from. Florida seemed like a good enough place.
I wanted my first night out with my new fake to be spent at the trashiest gay bar imaginable. Paradise is called Splash, it’s full of towers of gogo boys with unnerving bulges. The bouncer looks at my ID then back at me then back at my ID and he says what’s your address: 9210 John Street, Palm Beach Florida, 33480.
Inside the club, I’m swarmed by bloodhound men. Tonight I’m the freshest thing in the room and everybody wants some good good. Oh, by the way, I’m also at this point pretending to be Bulgarian because I think Eastern European men are sexy and broody and like whatever. As a classically trained actor, from child stage stardom to playing peasant number 3 in a revolution, I picked up some tricks.
I’d stand at the bar in my best butch armor and coo into my phone the Bulgarian national anthem like a conversation. Laugh at random points. Really earn the audience. Mila Rodino ti si zemen ray HAHAHAHA tvoyta hubost, tvoyta prelest, te nyamat kray HAHAHA. It worked. I got free Melon Ballers on the reg. They were a mix of mountain dew and melon schnapps and vodka, ew.
I see Whitney White from across the room. He is 40ish and built like a surfer. I am here to conquer. I am here to see what all those city boys do. Fast forward, he has brushed my hair behind my ear and is leading me to a couch near the back, he is buying me drink after drink, he is asking how is Bulgaria and I am staying strong to the Stanislavski method—It is Bulgaria. Shrug. The music is blasting and I feel like my insides are alien green. His hand is on my knee. His hand is above my knee. His hand is moving and I cannot move, or really, I do not want to move. There is a buckle snap. Over the speakers, the DJ introduces for the first time Amy Winehouse’s Rehab to the gay club. The strobe lights start pulsing and Whitney White is not stopping and it’s all of these firsts rolled into 2 minutes. The bouncer is on us and shouting get it together or I’m gonna have to throw you two out. Whitney White cuffs me behind the neck and says, let’s get out of here and come home with me to Long Beach.
Suddenly it is morning and I am in his bed and he is gone and I think, holy fuck, this is how an SVU episode starts. I look up directions and realize we rode the train for two and a half hours last night and I’m experiencing my first soul crushing hangover. I do what anyone terrified would do, I check medicine cabinets. I want to see if he is truly Whitney White and around me are surfboards and framed degrees. The door opens and he walks in with donuts and I’m feeling the gay panic and I have to be back in Manhattan right now. Whitney White if you’re out there I should have stayed longer but I just had all these feels. I get home and download Back to Black. I spend the rest of the summer perfecting my Bulgarian and coming out to my college friends. I listen to the album every morning and every evening before I go out to live.
BACK TO BLACK
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
and I go back to
Now almost nine years since I lived at 9210 John Street Palm Beach Florida, I am living in Chicago. Along the way, I fell in love. I fell out of love. I almost converted to Hinduism for a partner. I came up with the names for our future children with another. It all was nothing really remarkable. I left a whole string of broken men back in Virginia. After every break up, I’d turn on Amy and I’d take long walks and I’d imagine I was the only one who’d every felt this kind of heartbreak (except for her). I’d walk and I’d walk and picture the two of us in our own music video world.
Since moving to the windy city, I’m starting to explore my sexuality and gender identity more. I’m painting my nails, I’m using plural pronouns. I’m wearing my guy-liner on thick. My first year here I am broke as hell and working as a telemarketer. I’m making ends meet by, well, turning some tricks.
My favorite was an Italian man with a giant tattoo across his forearm that said STRAIGHT EDGE. He allowed only one question every hookup and hummed along to her song Fuck Me Pumps.
I didn’t want pleasantries with this man, I wanted darkness. I wanted a whole room of I’ve-Never-Told-Anyone-This-Befores.
A dozen or so one-question-only-nights later, he stops calling. He disappears. A friend starts answering his texts. I start to wonder: what makes someone skip town? I start to wonder what I should have done to be taken along.
Around this time I meet The Unlovable Man. He is working in the call center and reads Neruda and thinks I’m weird in that kinda magical way you would think Oprah would look while riding a unicorn that shoots rainbows out of its eyes. We are having a post-work beer and all of Amy’s croon songs make perfect sense and I realize that this is the man I want to spend my life with. We talk and we talk and we talk until there’s nothing really left not to know about the other. I’m not writing sad boy poetry anymore.
But there’s this catch—he loves a girl a few neighborhood over. One morning after a perfect bender, I am putting eye-liner on in the bathroom while he is smoking in his boxers. He mentions her and he says, you know, you would really like her, she plays guitar and she’s learning French and she does her makeup just like you. It’s a little scary actually how much you two are alike. Except for the fact that you’re a dude and all…
Inside me a nuclear bomb explodes and I smudge my makeup for an excuse of why I yelled fuck from the bathroom.
WAKE UP ALONE
This face in my dreams seizes my guts
he floods me with dread
soaked in soul
he swims in my eyes by the bed
pour myself over him
moon spilling in
and I wake up alone
Two years into knowing The Unlovable Man there is a lot of drinking and a lot of late night confessionals. I am trying to process a lot about myself at this time. I am alone in the city and I’m in love. We plan a trip to Six Flags. I try to think of how to break it to him that my body hurts when he isn’t around that it’s stupid my knees hurt and my thighs hurt and my neck hurts just thinking about him and that sometimes I get up in the morning and can only picture what he’s up to and how I don’t know how he’d feel about this but I want to gay-marry the fuck out of him.
It’s July 23rd and a few days before my birthday. I am having a few day beers and doing laundry in prep for the trip. I have an art deco fanny pack picked out and everyday words seem to turn into love songs. I’m well buzzed by the spin cycle. My phone goes off and Amy is dead. My phone goes off and I am in the basement of my Chicago apartment and halfway across the world someone I’ve always needed is gone and I cry and then I laugh at how ridiculous it is that I’m weeping. People die every day and she didn’t even know you. I call the Unlovable Man and I say at least twenty times I love you I love you I love you I love you.
That’s not how this goes though, because I already knew from the moment I met him that this isn’t going to work out. That there’s too much politics at play between my legs. He says the trip is off, that we really shouldn’t talk for a while, that he isn’t comfortable with my love, that I’m too emotional, I’m too much.
I go to Six Flags alone and quietly cry while chain smoking in the designated areas.
Cause since I’ve come on home,
well my body’s been a mess
and I’ve missed your ginger hair
and the way you like to dress
won’t you come on over stop making a fool out of me
Why don’t you come on over Valerie?
It is my 27th year and I’m trying to get this act together. I’m managing the compulsions a lot better. I’m thinking of going as Well-Adjusted this Halloween. I’m trying not to obsess over Amy and the 27 Club. I’m thinking about not thinking about, Christ, I could get hit by a bus or a drunk driver at any crosswalk. I go to the market and I don’t think of him. I go to work and I don’t think of him. I keep an Amy quote in my wallet: “Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.” When I listen to her, it’s not just her that echoes in her rasp, it’s Whitney White, it’s the Southern men who almost ruined me, it’s Straight Edge, and it’s The Unlovable Man all singing in harmony. In her audition tape for Island Records, Amy sings “There is No Greater Love.” Looking back at the lyrics, there’s an unexpected turn “There is no greater thrill/than what you bring to me/no sweeter song/than what you sing, sing to me.” Tonight or tomorrow or a few years from now, when a man sits down beside me at the bar with the barlights bouncing back off my eye-liner, Amy might eventually play over the sound system. And looking at him, I will see myself stripped of the phantom hunger music brings into the room. When he says, “May I get you another,” I will finally know what it means to be sung to.
The man said, Why do you think you’re here?
I said I got no idea.
Said I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near.
He said I just think you’re depressed.
Kiss me, “Yeah, baby, and the rest.”
I’ve been working on a portrait of Amy for the last year. I’ve been reading a lot of self-help books and acknowledging my obsessions. I realize that Amy is what they call a coping mechanism. That Amy plus booze is the perfect coping mechanism. The Unlovable Man has been around for five years now, he comes and he goes and sometimes he stays the night. We take turns playing songs to one another, as if pop acoustic melodies were code for I-want-you-but-I-can’t-have-you. Each time some manic pixie dream girl sirened, I would be saying—listen, listen, this is how I’m feeling.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so drawn to this destructive relationship. Why when Amy talks about hunger and want, I’m singing too. It’s 2015 and they’ve released a documentary on her life. I go with my best friend, a talented, beautiful blonde actress. She does my cat eyes and we sneak in a fifth of whiskey. After the movie, there’s a silence between us, an I-know-that-was-hard and a how-do-you-hold-beauty. We’re not talking about our drinking. We’re not talking about our drinking. We’re not talking about our drinking.
She leaves me outside my apartment but before going she brings up The Unlovable Man. I say I’m working things out, I say I’m trying to see this connection as something else, I say everything instead of what I mean which is: we just watched a life of heartbreak, and he is mine.
My most recent successful mental breakdown happened during a friend’s wedding. I’m buzzed on free mint juleps. I’m weeping in my seat. Everything is beautiful, everything about the ceremony is everything and everything is only two blocks away; everything is just getting off work; everything is home; everything is taking off his shoes; everything says come over.
By this point, I hadn’t talked or seen The Unlovable Man for 38 days. I was doing good. I was working on my steps. I was painting. I showed up in my post-wedding attire, I wanted to say: see this could be us, but you playin’. We drink and we drink and he brings up Amy and he asks if I still do my morning routine of Valerie (acoustic) as soon as I wake up. I say yes. I say can I stay the night? He says yes, you can stay in my bed. We run out of beer, we buy more beer. It is four am and he’s got the spins. We’re in our boxers and he says rub my back. I am shaking. He turns over and I kiss him and I felt like a goddamn black-and-white-movie star.
Is that ok?
Is what? That you kissed me?
No, that I love you.
Listen, he slurs, I love you more than anyone. But I feel like we were together, like in another life, or another time, or something. Like, maybe this isn’t the lifetime that we spend together.
I rub his back. He says I’m sorry, this is all emotionally too much. I think I might throw-up.
In the morning, I’m putting on my pants and my jewelry and trying to make touch-ups to my cat eyes. He has some of it smeared on his cheek. I don’t tell him.
We act like last night really didn’t happen or at least neither of us brings it up. I put back on my Church clothes and walk out the door. I listen to Valerie on my way to the train. And it hits me. I’d be listening to the song as some sort of anthem to queerness, in which Amy covers a band called The Zutons. She doesn’t change the pronouns. She keeps it as a love song to a woman and Amy wants to know the most mundane things because that’s love. Wondering if someone paid their fine. If they’ve changed the color of their hair or where they’re shopping. You miss someone and the whole world feels empty. I was wrong though about it being to someone, to Amy’s Unlovable Woman, it wasn’t. She was singing to herself. The I of the song becomes the beloved. Amy was the one to be daydreamed about and I walked down the street feeling the same way. I left The Unlovable Man that morning knowing that there are nights down the line when he comes home and his body’s been a mess and he pictures me as he looks across the water.
For the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a poet. But right there with him blacking out beside me, I just wanted to be the poem.
C. Russell Price is a Virginian poet living in Chicago. Previous publications include Assaracus, Court Green, HOUND, MiPOesias, Weave, and elsewhere. They hold a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA from Northwestern University. Price currently works with The Offing, The Rumpus, Story Club Magazine, and TriQuarterly. Their chapbook Tonight, We Fuck The Trailer Park Out of Each Other is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in Summer 2016.