We lived in the attic of a grey house. A fire escape wound up the front frame. It was set back from the street with an overgrown front yard and a railing before the drop to the sidewalk. Our entrance was around three flights of stairs snaking around the back. We had the landlord install sensor lights. It was a one way street with one lane and another for parking. We got really good at parallel parking. At one end was the police station and at the other, the edge of downtown folks only knew if they knew the back way. Not that we could see it through the trees but our house faced a ravine below the bushes.
The street was quiet. But Ithaca is a small town so of course a few friends lived on our block. Next door was a large yellow and brown house with an always-empty wrap around porch, yet people were always coming and going. We had our suspicions. The house across the street was full a group of guys we never saw who all played in the same band.
How the furniture found its way up the stairs remained a mystery. The climb, the constant pivoting, and increasing steep and shallow steps, we couldn’t figure it out. After a weekend out of town we returned home to find our apartment full of gas, our stove range never fixed. When they replaced the entire appliance we couldn’t believe it fit. I imagined them sawing off one wall of the building. The couch and chairs were shrunken, built for tiny corners. Your knees almost hit your chest when you sat down, ass sinking directly to the floor.
My two older sisters were “not allowed” to live off campus. Dad “forbid” it. But I had an easy time convincing him after the roommate I planned on moving in with crossed the final line and so I found a radio friend I knew needed a roommate. I succeeded her as Music Director my junior year and we had previously only spent stoned nights at the State Street Diner. In mid August a mutual friend in Ithaca looked at the apartment and sent photos. The dildo hanging from the kitchen ceiling didn’t scare us off. The idea of my own place felt adult, even though I was only 21.
We agreed on the same ground rule: no television. And because my records came with me everywhere, my stereo was our center.
I see the weird shape of the walls, the small door to nowhere off our living room. We hung Christmas lights and a tapestry — college! — and there was no shelf designated for one thing or another in the fridge. I felt free from the smallest parts of my mother’s antics. It was the first time I was living in a place where I had to set up and pay my own gas and electric bills. It was the first time where I had a roommate that declared privacy on day one (“that’s my bedroom door and when it’s closed it’s closed”). It was the first time I was living in a place I could truly call my own and do exactly what I wanted with it. I had financial help from my folks but it was a taste of freedom I had never known before.
My roommate brought a coffee table, a teal blue square from Ikea. The legs screwed into the top. I was writing and recording an aural documentary about doodling as my senior thesis and we encouraged anyone who sat down to form whatever lines that pleased them. It was our smoking center, home to an open Altoids used as an ashtray. With a friend’s advice I crushed bud up with my hands, fit it delicately in the fold of transparent paper, curled it around itself, spit on it, and lit one end on fire. I did it over and over until I got it right. I’d roll a few for parties so I wouldn’t have to depend on others. The tin would protect and conceal. The mints nestled between were for after.
Ash, bits of zig zags, and stray green littered the table. The streaks of permanent marker made it more cluttered. We only noticed the film underneath it all when a parent was in town and we’d have to wipe it off. Otherwise, we left our paraphernalia out and called ourselves High Functioning Stoners. It was the first time I lived with someone who didn’t mind drugs left out, or drugs at all. I’d been smoking for years but it was the first place I could actually experiment — how much is too much?
She finished her degree a semester early and decided to stay. In and out, babysitting gigs, she took the GRE just in case it came up one day. My independence was stretched further. Still, we spent hours together making dinner, listening to music, and getting anyone who would stop by stoned. Spring is the best time of year in Ithaca, before the heat suspends itself over Cayuga Lake. We’d leave the windows closed all day, heat really does rise, and once the sun set we’d fling them open to let the night in. A box fan sat somewhere on the floor. Different records place my memory in different months but the only one I can remember ten years later is The Black Keys’ Brothers.
It is their sixth record. I knew a few hits from Attack & Release we played on the station and discovered “10 AM Automatic” on Rubber Factory freshman year. I played it on repeat, deeming it the only acceptable modern music, full of heavy bass and fuzz. But it was Brothers that broke them into the mainstream, mine too.
Everyone on campus played it. The station played it. I know every passing car didn’t have it on but my memory tells me otherwise. It saturated every group of friends I had, and didn’t. I listened to it every day and it was new every day. Sometimes the front half of the album was my favorite but then I’d swear the back end was better.
It led me to their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up because I needed more blues and it was the only one I hadn’t heard of. It was gooier than their other albums and I fell harder. I played the two records back to back in every space I occupied. This modern sound of grunge blues, no doubt recycled, was new to me. It felt more valid on their debut, where a band isn’t afraid to be itself — greasy and course. Brothers was its sister: delicate and heavy, approachable jingles, a safe bet groove. They made me feel sexy despite being a virgin. They made me feel every pulse. They made me feel, well, cool, as college seniors are wont to do. They made me feel like I knew what it was like to have an ex-girl, a ten cent pistol, an unknown brother.
Reverb dripped down our vaulted walls and filled the cracks of the tired, worn wood floors. Oil covered the windows. The doorknobs sweated with anticipation. I played it so often Brothers became the third roommate, the kind of music that lingers so long the record is a memory itself.
I hear the linoleum sticking to the pads of my feet and I hear the grime on the panini press we used as a toaster all year and never cleaned. I hear the grocery lists we made, one meal plan at a time. I hear our map of the world shower curtain and I hear the shag of the carpet in my bedroom.
Every night we locked the two front doors — a generic piece of wood anyone could kick down and the wood-framed glass door behind it. I feel my shoulders shrugging to lean over as I wash my hands in the bathroom; I feel the cold metal of the hot and cold knobs of the porcelain sink under the claw of my hands, fine tuning them. I remember how the bar on the door of our refrigerator was broken and held in place with a rubber band until at an end of the year party every third person opened the fridge and knocked it loose. Every condiment hit the floor.
It was the first place I ingested a psychedelic. We brewed mushroom tea because we were too chicken to eat them. When the maintenance man stopped by to replace the fridge’s hardware, it was a humid, sticky day. He was puzzled by the empty tea bags on the counter, the steam piping from our mugs. We did our best to only smile. It was the first place I saw walls breathe, the first place where reality finally bent around me.
How does music become your own? Once released, does it still belong to the creator? Or does it only live on in a consumer’s mind? These memories are mine but without this record would they still be as thick? Or would some other sound have molded something else out of me?
Every few years I dream of this apartment: I’m getting a tour as a prospective tenant. But something has always changed.
I felt clarity every time I played Brothers, in its groans, muffles, chimes, and grunts. The stairs were easier to climb, the truth became easier to tell, and my body relaxed, knowing it would finally be home.