Personal Essay by Broke A$$ Rich Kid
Cruising down the 10 Freeway with me in my humid Fiat was Clarissa, a skinny brunette with a wicked bone structure and a very busy schedule. It was the first time a date had started in the car, at least for me. I was going on two years single. Instead of $200 a month I was paying $230 for the Fiat I had just leased; poor credit. HBO’s Girls was about to start its 4th season. To get us in the mood I was playing songs off the War on Drugs album. We were on the way to a War on Drugs concert.
When I first started listening to the War on Drugs I was in the beginning of a gnarly break up — from Cary Jane. A period of loneliness and isolation,muy painful. During this period having sex came in fits and starts. Thank goodness it existed, because there had been stretches in my 20’s when on hiatus I became a withered out weed.
I won’t pretend I was having sex on the regular, but every so often it would happen, and when it did it was memorable. In between the pretty blonde painter who looked twenty, but was older than I, and the Cuban daddy’s girl whose sexual appetite was more than she or I could handle, there were deep swells of loneliness and questioning. Mostly loneliness. On every date, I was extremely horny.
The last time Cary Jane and I saw each other was in Hawaii. On the island of Kaui. I had been there twice as a child, but for some reason had no recollection of all the chickens I saw when I went with my grandparents. Kaui is an island of chickens. Instead of stray dogs, hens and roosters. The natives bred them to fight off the evil spirits emanating from the volcanoes.
In Kaui, I was also a kind of chicken. Cary Jane transformed me into one to fight off the evil spirits, or at least that’s what it felt like. I somehow lost the ability to have an erection there, and when we tried to have sex, on several occasions I actually cried.
On my way home to Los Angeles, we said toodles to each other, tears wetting our skin. Cary Jane was going on a trip around the world, a trip that I had inspired her to go on. No more job. She was a free man. A few weeks in she sent me a photograph that said “143” in seashells. Told me in the e-mail she had collected them all morning. That was the high point of Cary Jane’s trip, at least for me. A few weeks after that she was on silent retreat in India. Last time we spoke as boyfriend and girlfriend. During hours of soundless meditation, she said, is when she realized it.
So much for the seashells.
The War on Drugs were my sole companion for the months that followed. The musical interludes on the “Lost in a Dream” album, especially. Those in-between moments when there are no voices, or lyrics; just instruments, were the hardest to listen to. To me they sounded like representations of my loneliness, tiny goldfish gasping for air.
The lead singer of the War on Drugs, Adam Granduciel, has spoken extensively about his recording process for “Lost in a Dream.” About the anxiety and paranoia he felt while writing the album. He has also called “Lost in a Dream” a solo record.
Two years after first hearing “Lost in a Dream” I had the good fortune of nabbing two tickets to the band’s show in Pomona, CA. Pomona is about 30 miles inland from Los Angeles, and the Glass House is a perfect venue to watch a rock show. I’d seen one or two bands there in the past. The beauty of the Glass House is the limited size of the venue and the fact that the shows are twice as cheap as shows in Los Angeles.
I was dating regularly by this point, slowly but surely having pulled myself out of the volcano Cary Jane had pushed me into. Tinder, at the time, was the newest dating app on the market. For all of its benefits, I also wondered if the ladies version of the app came with a pre-loaded tool kit for aesthetic transmutation.
I was a little disappointed when my date to the concert, Clarissa, told me that she had sampled a few War on Drugs songs on Spotify earlier that day, and had thought they were pretty good. I had obviously misunderstood her passion for the music. Instead of letting me introduce her to the powerful sound of Adam Granduciel on the way to the show, she preferred to talk about a late-blooming fashion career. I would have taken her to the show even if she had never heard of the band. It was part of the deal I made when I purchased the pair of tickets nine months before the concert. I would have a new lover by then, I predicted, and if I didn’t I would obtain one in the moment. She was as cute in the flesh as she was on her Tinder profile, and that was more than enough for me.
Believe me, getting to know someone in traffic is not the way to put yourself out there for the first time, or flirt. Still, with one hand never off the steering wheel, I led us to the Glass House.
The opening act, Cass McCombs, was a drowsy musician who probably could’ve used a little cough medicine before singing that night. A friend of mine from Beverly Hills had introduced me to his music when we were both living in the East Village in 2010. The East Village was kind of a dead zone by then. The flavor of the early 2000’s — the Stroke’s, White Stripes, and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s period, had been smothered by trendy boutiques such as the John Varvatos store that famously took over C.B.G.B. When I first lived in the East Village, I was managing bands, or I should say a band, since it was only one. The Izzy’s were a blues-rock band that I had been introduced to after my good friend Blaze, who became their bassist, mailed me a demo. He thought I’d be a good hype man, and he was right. I did everything for that band, setting up shows at the city’s most prestigious venues, like the Mercury Lounge and Joe’s Pub.
Cary Jane and I met way after those days, during my second stint in New York, the whack period when I was pushing thirty and still had a safety net. She had a vigorous mind, educated through the California public school system, a soul-sucking marketing job, and a colorful family. Cary Jane’s father had a workshop in the back of their home in the Palisades, ran the local marathon annually, and had stopped working professionally decades ago. Becoming the breadwinner terrified Cary Jane, and so did the similarities between her father and I. I loved her father and admired his marriage to Cary Jane’s mother, whose hair, like Cary Jane’s, was the color of a Monet watercolor.
The Glass House in Pomona was packed a full hour before the War on Drugs stepped on stage. The audience of mostly Converse-clad couples was enthusiastic. The acoustics at the Glass House made conversations difficult, so Cass McCombs’ set was going to have to be my ice-breaker. A little make-out before the headliner was what I had in mind. But my date, Clarissa, was more interested in her cell phone than she was in romance. So far all my questions had come back in grey outline.
“So, you know how we’ve been using the pull-out method and kind of fucking up sometimes?” Cary Jane asked one ugly night over chicken kiev in our New York studio. A curtain separated the bedroom from the kitchen where meat was always marinating and Cary Jane’s necklaces were draped on nails. I had just set the table and a breeze coming from the windows was making the windchimes dance.
Somewhere between the pull-out method and Cary Jane’s unwillingness to accept birth control, a mistake happened — 18 months to a wedge. Needless to say, we never got to the salad that night.
After declaring ourselves unfit to parent, things were never good in New York again between Cary Jane and I. I was a stranger in our home and the brick walls of our apartment wouldn’t let me forget it. Cary Jane’s brother had a key to a closet I never got permission to go into. My clothing and possessions were housed in a small shelf the next-door neighbor’s dog barked at whenever he snuck in for breadcrumbs. After disappearing for a few months, a wooden bottle opener in the shape of an erect penis was back in the kitchen, and even more disruptive.
The facts around the terminated pregnancy are still contested, but here are the important details: One late summer night Cary Jane had to go to the hospital while I was working as a busboy to pay my share of the rent. I got the impression that she was fine and would be home to meet me after the hospital.
“You sure you don’t want me to come?” I said.
“No, Maren is here.”
But when I waded in after work Cary Jane still wasn’t home. Hours of discomfort passed before she finally showed. According to Cary Jane, I had revealed my true colors by not showing up to the hospital, the way a real man would.
By the end of Cass McCombs’ set I was a little stoned, and with clammy hands I excused myself to the bathroom for a short pow-wow. I owed it to the War on Drugs, the music that had carried me through the hardest breakup of my life, to pay attention. Clarissa was probably going to want to stand all the way in the back checking her Instagram feed asking me for vodka sodas. Suddenly I was dying to ditch the extra weight.
“I’m not avoiding you,” I said to Cary Jane a few months after the hospital incident. Now, every tension around the house could explode into an argument about financial prudence. It chipped away at our relationship, the important part, the part that made it fun. Only transactions were left, and eventually every transaction boiled down to the same thing, that there was something wrong with me because I had not yet learned, after three decades of existence, how to take care of myself. Worse, I would never be able to take care of her. I was half-man, the kind that her father was, the kind who could never take care of a woman, because he needed the opposite.
As the stage went midnight blue and a familiar riff vibrated through my bones, I was still stuck next to my date, Clarissa. The opening bars to “Under Pressure,” a song Granduciel said did not reflect the emotional state he was in when writing its morbid lyrics, were blaring, and a haze of smoke covered the stage. Yellow and red lights were flashing left and right, and before I knew it, there they were, the War on Drugs, with lead singer Adam Granduciel center stage. Clearly, I was on a date. But could this really count as a “date-date” if the person who I was escorting had been a complete stranger to me before the sun went down. She was still a stranger. I had a forty minute Cass McCombs set and the 10 freeway as evidence. To assist with my decision, I did what I normally do. I texted my friend Rich. Most likely, Rich’s advice would be awful. Yet somehow clarity manifested whenever I spoke to Rich. Listening to Rich was like being hypnotized.
The audience was going nuts and I was still waiting for my phone to buzz with advice from my sage. My companion, on the other hand, felt compelled to open up about her mother’s mental illness. “Severe depression,” Clarissa said, “can victimize loved ones around it more than the sick person. At least they have therapy.”
Imagine you’re in your car on the way back from a road trip on the 10 freeway, and suddenly you’re confronted with a thick fog that makes it impossible to see three feet ahead of you, Rich texted. Driving around in circles, you really have no idea where you’re going, right? You’re about to give up when out of nowhere a miracle happens, the entrance to the freeway ramp is right in front of you. It made no sense but it gave me the confidence to bum-rush the front of the stage just hard enough for a wave of super fans to give up on their stampede. Soon, I was at the very edge of the stage, right next to the speaker, dead center, snapping pictures of lead singer Adam Granduciel himself.
Before volcanoes erupt, they rumble. That’s what happened for eighteen months to Cary Jane and me — post hospital incident. It wasn’t the incident itself that led to our breakup, it was that I had abdicated, that I went home instead of to the hospital, that I hadn’t been there when I was needed most. When our child had evaporated in a river of boiling red lava.
“What kind of coward would leave his bleeding girlfriend in the hospital? I could have died,” Cary Jane said over Thanksgiving in the Palisades, “I could have bled to death.”
“I was at work and I… when we spoke you said I should stay there.”
“It doesn’t matter what I said, Allen, it’s your job to show up. It’s your job to take care of me.”
After six songs I turned and found my date. Clarissa was leaning against the bar with a zipped up look on her face while Granduciel howled the opening lyrics to “Eyes to the Wind,” a song I first heard on Jason Bentley’s KCRW morning show. A song that time and time again allowed me to feel like my existence was a miracle too. A song that I sang out loud with my windows down while on Mulholland Drive in my overpriced Fiat. Shout out to KCRW. One of these days I swear I’m going to become a member. But in the meantime keep doing your pledge drives.
To say that I had the best night of my life would be less than fact, but not by a lot. I jammed, I sweated, I air-guitared center stage alongside the confused and lonely-hearted until my arms were tired and my voice was hoarse. Singing all the lyrics with other human beings right next to me who needed it as much as I did, all the way through the encore. After two full years of listening to the War on Drugs, I had those lyrics on lock. It was and still is one of the best rock shows I have ever seen.
Had it been any other night, I probably would have tried to invest myself in Clarissa’s woes. Probably would have listened to her talks about fashion and ageism and feminism. Would have told her that I’m a feminist. Would have explained exactly how, being specific as I can about it. Instead, I stood up for myself.
The car ride home was a lot easier as a result. Still feeling the buzz, I had the War on Drugs playing the whole way down the freeway. I was free from caring what my date thought about me, and plenty of gas was in the tank.
“Thanks for coming with me,” I said. “I told myself when I bought the tickets nine months ago that I was going to go no matter what.”
“In nine months I could produce a child,” she said.
“We should have been bobbing our heads and ripping it hard right in front of the stage,” I said right before dropping her off. “We should have been there together.”
As she sank into the shadows, I added, “I’m glad you were with me.” But I don’t think she heard.