From the Void I Saw Your Face
by John Englehardt
Something is wrong with your marriage. What that thing is, you don’t know. It can only be clarified by petty grievances. The actual problem must be some singular misunderstanding buried under an old road you’ve repaved. You can’t navigate it because you don’t know how it used to look.
For example, Casey has been leaving you at home while she goes to underground noise-metal shows with increasing regularity. There are three venues in town. One is called The Riot Room, an upstairs bar that features plastic chandeliers, a stage that also functions as a bathroom hallway, and warped wood floors with gaps so big that change falls through them. The other is a garage on MLK right behind the Cowboy Disco, which also serves as an artist studio/apartment. The third one is just the house where Seth Avery lives. Seth is a roving bartender who wears cutoff jean shorts year round, decorates his living room with tinsel-framed cartoons, and often bites his guitar strings until he gets electrocuted.
Casey sees bands like Septic Vibes, Moon Machete, Nothingfriends. Their live shows sound like nightmarish construction sites of grinding feedback and sonorous, detuned drums. But this is how Casey likes it, when music is so loud it pushes her back against a wall, so she can feel it in her chest more than she can hear it. She says it’s like meditation, when sound blocks out everything except itself. She goes to several shows a week, often coming back after last call, crawling into your bed half-drunk, smelling of body odor and cigarette smoke.
Years ago, you thought Casey’s affinity for this music scene was a charming eccentricity. You went to a few of these shows and enjoyed the lack of posturing, expensive equipment, and delusions of grandeur that often inhabit music scenes. But now you feel out of place. You start wondering if the crowd is acting out an unfettered angst you’ve grown beyond. It makes you worry that, somewhere along the way, as you and Casey became different people, you didn’t make sure your new selves would be compatible. Like, maybe there is some part of you that should always be defended from change.
The thing is, you are not a complete emotional fuckup, so you mention this worry to Casey. You just want to talk, but what happens is both of you revert to your respective defensive behavioral patterns. “Why do you wait so long to address something that bothers you? Why don’t you ever just get mad?” she says. “It’s complicated,” you say, “because I’m mad at myself for being mad at you.” The two of you talk until you’re too exhausted to disagree anymore, and things get better—that is, until something else comes along. Your arguments have this way of endlessly turning into something else.
This is when you start spending most of your time at my house. You sit dejectedly on my enclosed porch, where the maple leaves have blown and gather in piles under dining chairs and recycling bins, turning pale and purple. It starts with a jacket you leave on my couch, then your running shoes. Soon it’s your toothbrush and a duffel bag. You sit on the washing machine wedged in my pantry as I cook dinner and you tell me how your marriage is wrecking the way a car crashes slowly, like when your father drove through a guardrail, then asked if everyone was okay while his truck was still tumbling down an embankment. We listen to pop ballads, read quotes from student papers. Patriarchy treats women like escape goats. My recycling bin overflows with empties of cheap beer, and there are times when we silo ourselves so completely that we think being small town professors has granted us entry into some high and mighty misunderstood club. We idealize being lost, and heartbroken, and overeducated, and in debt—but only because we have outrun the darkness that was coming for us, as if together we are moving towards some great yet colorless light.
Then one day, you wake up on my couch at six in the morning. You should be hung-over, but you’re completely awake. So you walk down the bike trail to The Depot, a train station built in 1901 that has been remodeled into a Chipotle Grill, flanked by a coffee shop called Common Grounds. You get black coffee with cinnamon and grade papers on the cold back deck. An antique train lurches by, and from inside the gray-haired tourists look upon you with empty surprise. Then in the distance, you are certain that you see Casey walking to class alone. She is wearing her purple tights, the same ones a student insulted on her first-ever teacher evaluation. Worst fashion sense EVER! the girl wrote under the question How would you rate your instructor’s spoken English? You think about how frequently Casey has worn those tights since then, how if someone doesn’t like a part of who she is, she buries the world in it. When she gets out of sight, you feel sick. You don’t like the ease with which she just entered and left your day. You decide that doubting her is like forgetting yourself—that the two of you have gone so far down a road together that no one else could possibly understand who you are.
So this is what you do. You invite yourself to the next show at The Riot Room. You start drinking early. You try standing patiently in the bathroom doorway while Casey winds a curling iron around her bangs, wearing black combat boots, black jeans, a leather coat, and red lipstick. But you’re already battling an unresolved thread of frustration: she is dressing this way for a scene, and not to please you, and this confuses your screwed up ideas of masculinity.
So as you walk downtown together, you ask about teaching, and she tells you how a student came into her office, said snow was a symbol for cold in Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” then ran away as if from a feral animal. In an attempt to be validating and encouraging, you tell her to keep in mind that these freshmen have it rough. That a lot of them barely escaped from towns where the main employers are Dollar General, Ciba Chemicals, and greasy diners who scrape up the high school dropouts and crack heads. Many of them are too afraid to drive “in the city,” let alone talk to a young and incandescent professor.
“So, they’re like me,” says Casey, with an air of irritation.
“Yeah,” you say, trying to backpedal from your unsolicited advice. “Except no one is like you.”
“Bullshit,” she says.
The Riot Room is on the town square by the clock tower. It’s wedged between a conservative used bookstore and a salon with a sign that reads TAN SKIN+WHITE TEETH=CONFIDENCE! You already hear the doomy guitars four blocks away.
Inside, a band called Brutal Push plays what sounds like a slow-motion funeral procession. Behind them hangs a homemade banner with a reanimated corpse baring sharp teeth, blood pouring from its mouth. You don’t recognize anyone here, and the crowd is indifferent to your entrance in the same way a freeway is when swallowing you into its traffic. To the side of the stage, a woman dances by kicking her feet towards nothing.
So here it is, without warning—the problem that’s like a cockroach scurrying beneath the stove whenever you step into the kitchen. Why would Casey ever choose this over you? It makes you want to go home, smoke a conservative amount of weed together, and wait until Casey pulls the anthology of haikus off the shelf like she used to. You want her lips to be provocative with surprise as she reads the words unnecessarily loud, the way she does when you’re alone together. A cloud floats/at the same place in the sky/where yesterday it floated. You want her to say I love you in that small room where the air is bodyhot and tropical. But this is just a glossy reproduction of how things used to be. You’re constantly re-learning that to dig up a memory with nostalgia is to erase it.
When the song ends, it’s like a demented HVAC has been shut off, but then the lead singer fiddles with his effects pedals, the drummer slaps his sticks together, and it’s on again. Drums emerge from dissonance. Yelling sprawls across overdriven bass. Casey pulls you closer to the stage, and you try to remember that the reason you came here was to show how solicitous you could be. But you realize what’s scary about this place is not that she prefers it to you, but that there’s a good reason why she likes it here—you just don’t understand. After all, she also must be worn down by sleeping with a passive aggressive shoulder turned to you, masturbating alone in the shower, and constantly interpreting someone else’s anxiety as a personal attack. She has to be bothered by the fact that your fights are like an earthworm growing new heads and new eyes after getting torn apart. And maybe she’s closer to finding out why than you ever will be. Maybe she comes to these shows and is not trying to sleep with Seth Avery or ignore you or drink until the world floats upon water. She is waiting in the wraith-like smoke for a deeper understanding separating itself from you. She wants to discern the exact reason why sound can carry so much that it becomes deafening, why love can mature itself into a void.
John Englehardt‘s writing has appeared in Sycamore Review, Monkeybicycle, and The Seattle Review of Books. He has won the 2014 Wabash Prize in Fiction, the Conium Review’s 2014 flash fiction contest, and The Stranger’s A&P fiction contest. From 2015-16, he was a writing fellow at Hugo House, where he now teaches classes.
Photo original: Jaakonam via Creative Commons.